“I’m still working at home, but only just.” Before the pandemic, Melanie Green loved her job in a bustling police control room. But the drugs she takes for arthritis suppress her immune system and Green won’t risk going back into the workplace while Covid continues to circulate.
“It’s a busy environment with people coming in and out at all times of day. There’s no way that I could be working in that office safely,” she says. “The doctor says I am still at extremely high clinical risk.”
The 52-year-old is fit and able to work – but since her role can only be fully performed from the office, Green fears losing her job in the near future.
“There’s no guidelines in place for employers any more – so they’re saying eventually I’m going to become redundant. It’s extremely difficult. In two weeks’ time I don’t know if I’ll still have a job.”
Green is in an age group whose working lives have been particularly affected by the tumultuous events of the past two and a half years. Since Covid struck, the number of 50- to 64-year-olds who are economically inactive – neither working nor job-hunting – has shot up by 375,000.
In total, 27.6% of this age group are now inactive. That is an increase of 2.4 percentage points since before the pandemic – a much bigger change than the 1.5 percentage point rise in the working age population as a whole.
Some of these over-50s moving out of the workforce are among the record 2.49 million people now not in a job because of long-term health conditions – an army of missing workers that has exacerbated inflation by creating staff shortages, driving up wages. Other over-50s have deliberately downsized or chosen to retire – or been prompted to make a change for other reasons.
“It’s a mixture of things,” says Chris Brooks, the head of policy at the charity Age UK. “There are certainly people who are being forced out of work at the moment because there is still a lack of the right kinds of jobs available, which means if you have caring responsibilities or if you’re struggling with a health condition then it can make it quite difficult to find the right job.”
The Office for National Statistics has surveyed 50- to 65-year-olds who have left their job since the start of the pandemic to ask them about their health and financial position.
Among the over-55s, the enforced pause many faced during lockdown appears to have prompted a rush for the exit. By far the biggest reason given by this older group was that they had retired, or wanted a “lifestyle change”.
Among the younger 50-55 age bracket, many pointed to health as a factor – 19% said stress had been involved, 13% mentioned illness and 17% said that “did not feel supported in my job”. Respondents were allowed to highlight more than one factor.
However, recent analysis of separate ONS data by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showed that many of the 50- to 64-year-olds who now cannot work because of long-term sickness have already been out of the job market for five years or more.
The authors, Jonathan Cribb and Bee Boileau, argue that “there seem to be two distinct issues at stake: increasing levels of ill-health amongst the older non-working population (which is concerning as an issue in its own right), and increased levels of inactivity driven in large part by people leaving work for non-health related reasons – in particular because they have decided to retire.”
A separate report for the thinktank Demos, published on Wednesday, calls for the government to develop an ageing workforce strategy to help encourage the over-50s back into work – or prevent them leaving in the first place.
It recommends measures including tax breaks for workplaces providing occupational health support, and closer integration of healthcare with employment support.
“The government must not forget the lesson which the pandemic taught us, that people’s health and economic prosperity are closely interlinked,” says the report’s author, Andrew Phillips.
Financially, many who have left the workplace are taking advantage of the pension freedoms introduced by the then chancellor George Osborne in 2015, allowing over-55s with defined contribution schemes to draw on their retirement funds early.
The former pensions minister Steve Webb, now at the consultancy Lane Clark and Peacock, says some people have “stopped work, possibly through choice and possibly through circumstances, or a mix, they’ve hit a bill, or an energy cost, and they’ve thought, ‘I can’t make ends meet without touching my pension’, and they are now dipping in”.
Asked whether they may be storing up problems for the future by denuding their retirement savings early, he says, “yes, of course you’d far rather people didn’t touch their pensions, and what happens when they’re 80 and all the rest of it. On the other hand, it is their money, they have a need now, and they can use it and make their choice.”
He adds: “We’re all a bit short-termist, but people kind of get the fact that they can’t spend the same pound twice.”
Green, clinging to her job with the police, is pinning her hopes on a drug – Evusheld, manufactured by AstraZeneca – which has been licensed in several other countries in a bid to protect immunocompromised people from Covid.
She and thousands of others are campaigning for the government to allow it to be deployed in the UK – something for which the Department of Health and Social Care has said there is insufficient evidence.
Meanwhile, she says: “Our risk is a one-in-three chance of severe illness and death if we contract Covid – and not many people would like to step out of their front doors faced with that.”
Susan (who didn’t want us to use her real name) is currently trying to negotiate medical retirement from her job as a civil servant.
Before the pandemic, she was commuting into work every day and managing the pain of an inflammatory arthritis condition, but after a period of being at home during the successive lockdowns, she realised both how tough the job was on her health – and how much she enjoyed gardening and seeing her family instead. “I went back for a short while, and I was struggling,” she says.
“I’ve got to a point in my life where I can afford not to work, which has never been the case up until now. I think that applies to a lot of people over 50.”
She would consider taking on another job – but only in the right circumstances. “I will think about something, but it would be very much on my terms in future. My entire working life, nearly 40 years, has been doing what I’m told to do. I’m demob happy really,” she says.
Among those surveyed by the ONS, 58% said they would consider a return to work. When this group were asked what factors might be important in tempting them to take a job, flexible working came top, identified by 32% of people, followed by 23% who cited good pay.
With many employers struggling to recruit staff, David Hale, the head of public affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), says sensitive management is key to helping people work around issues such as caring responsibilities or health issues.
“If you’re looking at health conditions in particular, it’s often about either fluctuating pain, or fluctuating mental health conditions. It’s day-to-day flexibility – which is probably best managed in the workplace through high-quality line management.”
The FSB would like to see the guidelines for GPs from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for conditions such as depression, anxiety and the menopause changed to include recommending a discussion about managing at work.
Steve Dodd, 52, is among those who have changed their working lives since the pandemic struck, out of choice.
He was a university English teacher, but faced with declining student numbers and the prospect of clunky hybrid classes, he turned the part-time voluntary work he was doing teaching children to complete the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, into a job.
“I’m freelance, and it’s either the expeditions or the in-class face-to-face teaching,” he says. “I’ve taken to that very well, because of course I’m used to standing in front of students.”
He’s now taking a mountain leadership qualification, and hopes to open an outdoor centre near his home on the Wirral. “I never wanted to monetise my hobby, because I thought, that’s my private thing,” he says. “But leading the children on the expeditions, I really enjoy that. You get great feedback.”
Covid may have subsided in the public consciousness, to be replaced by political permacrisis; but it appears to have led to a long-lasting shift in the lives and livelihoods of many thousands of older workers.