In January, the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, called on retirees to return to the workforce after a House of Lords committee report showed that early retirement is the biggest driver of labour shortages in the UK.
The Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s Where have all the workers gone? report, published following an inquiry into the UK’s labour supply, concluded that there are four main drivers of shortages in the labour market: increased sickness; early retirement, changes in migration trends; and an ageing UK population.
Hunt has urged older people to return to the workforce, and is reportedly working on a “back-to-work Budget” in response to concerns about the large number of people aged 50-64 who have left the workforce.
It is widely accepted by both politicians and economists that rising economic inactivity amongst the over 50s presents serious challenges to the UK economy, as labour shortages exacerbate inflation and threaten economic growth.
For months there has been speculation about a ‘Great Unretirement’ and it would be understandable if investors and businesses were sceptical about the Government’s ability to deliver on this agenda. Back in October 2021, for example, Sunak announced a £500m drive to get older Britons back into work and plug the gap in the labour market. This had little impact, with the rate of over 50s leaving the workforce steadily increasing the first quarter of 2022.
The UK has been an aberration in terms of unretirement. The Learning and Work Institute has undertaken a study which shows that the UK has seen a slower post-Covid return to economic activity among people aged 55-64 than other countries including Germany, the US, Japan and Australia.
But that could be about to change as cost-of-living pressures start to bite . While Government initiatives may have failed to arrest rising economic inactivity in older people, cost of living pressures do appear to be having an impact. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 48,000 people moved out of economic inactivity and into employment between the three months to September and the three months to December 2022. Economic activity among the over-50s is now at its highest level since the pandemic began.
Recognising the desire of many older people to return to work and the important economic contribution they stand to make, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, announced that in government Labour would extend free retraining to the over-50s.
Whichever party is in power after 2024, investors should anticipate that getting retirees into employment will be seen as crucial to driving economic growth.
Mel Stride, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has been tasked by the Prime Minister to carry out a review to understand how to attract the economically inactive back into work.
Stride is likely to come under pressure to propose changes to the pension system that would encourage workers to stay in their jobs longer, such as an increase in the tax-free lifetime allowance, which currently stands at £1,073,100.
A current scheme of “Midlife MOTs” – where middle-aged workers take stock of their career with trained advisers – is also set to be expanded. The individual reviews assess finances and opportunities for various types of work retirees could take up.
Regardless of the formal policy response, getting retirees back into work is likely to remain a key government objective even if the number of economically inactive continues to fall in the short-term. The UK has an ageing population and annual welfare costs are expected to increase by £8.2 billion in the next five years. This creates a structural problem as these costs are paid for by the working population via tax.
Investors should anticipate that businesses that have a positive track record of retaining and attracting older workers are likely to benefit, particularly as other employers struggle to compete for talent in a tight labour market.
According to an ONS survey of older people who had left work during the pandemic and not returned, 58% said they would consider returning to work, but many of them wanted more flexible hours, higher pay or the ability to work from home.
Businesses that can give older workers an attractive route back to work will be better insulated from demographic trends.
It is already widely acknowledged that investing in an ageing workforce has substantial value. The airline easyJet has launched a recruitment drive urging people over the age of 45 to join its cabin crews.
This comes after Fuller’s pubs launched its first recruitment campaign specifically targeting older workers. The pub and hotel group has teamed up with Rest Less, a digital community for individuals aged over 50, to try and attract more people back into the workforce.
Within the civil service there have been drives to attract older workers, with the Department for Work and Pensions announcing last week it would pursue “age positive” recruitment policies by signing up to a national initiative intended to foster age inclusive working practices.
The UK has an ageing population, which will need extra money to be spent on health and welfare but which is less likely to be working and contributing to the economy. The fundamental demographic realities cannot be avoided, but what politicians will want to do is make sure that labour market trends do not exacerbate structural demographic challenges. In 2023 and beyond, investors can expect a clear message from government that the over 50s are as crucial to our economic recovery as younger workers.