Preventing long-term unemployment among older workers after coronavirus

By Jerome Finnegan


10 08 2020


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Yesterday we published new research with the Centre for Ageing Better, which showed that there is a risk of a surge in long-term unemployment among older workers after the Covid-19 outbreak.

We found that the number of older workers on unemployment related benefits has nearly doubled as a result of the pandemic – increasing from 304,000 in March to 588,000 in June.

What’s more, one in four older workers – 2.5 million in total – have been furloughed, and hundreds of thousands of these workers may be unable to return to their previous jobs as some sectors struggle to recover.

A mid-life employment crisis

Older workers we spoke to as part of the research had concerns about their employment prospects. They told us about their fears that the sectors that they had worked in would struggle to recover after the outbreak, the difficulties they felt they would face in finding new jobs, and their worries about being stereotyped by potential employers because of their age. As one older worker told us:

Employment wise, I’m not an employable, sort of, person. I don’t think, at my age, for what I used to do and what I can do. If I get made redundant by my industry, I won’t get another job in my industry.

The research warned of a significant increase in long-term unemployment for older workers. Over-50s who are unemployed are twice as likely to be out of work for 12 months or more as younger workers, and almost 50% more likely as workers aged 25 to 49. This is in part because of challenges older workers face with finding and securing work, but it’s also because employment support programmes are often much less effective in supporting over 50s.

Older workers, for example, saw far less benefits from the Work Programme, an employment support programme designed to reduce long-term unemployment after the 2008 recession. Unemployed people in their late 50s were half as likely to be supported into work as young people aged 18-24. This was due, at least in part, to deficiencies in the amount and frequency of support older workers received compared with younger workers.

Lessons should be learnt from past employment support programmes if we’re to avoid a surge in long-term unemployment among older workers. The report sets out three steps that could help prevent this from happening:

  1. Back to work support which meets the needs of the over 50s including effective incentives and robust oversight to prevent older claimants being left behind;
  2. Support for older workers to retrain, including an entitlement to funding for a qualification up to level 3 – the equivalent of A Levels – for all older workers;
  3. Further work to understand the financial impact of the crisis on older workers.

Much of the immediate response to the pandemic has focused on younger workers. There are good reasons for this. But, as the report shows, there is a need to do more to support older workers who lose their jobs back into work, so that we avert an unemployment crisis for over 50s.

Jerome Finnegan, head of employment at Learning and Work Institute.

The report was supported by Centre for Ageing Better.