Covid-19 and the ‘Great Resignation’ – how the UK workforce has been altered by the pandemic

Middle-aged and older people have left the workforce in droves since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – leading to what some have dubbed “the great quitting”. Employment experts say the increase signals a worrying trend towards unemployment due to poor health and retirement, and has left employers struggling to fill vacancies.

There were 522,000 economically inactive people of all ages in the UK between October and December 2021 compared to the same period before the pandemic. The vast majority (94.4%) were aged 50 and over, with 493,000 people in this age group having left the labor market.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) include unemployed people who have not looked for work in the past four weeks or are unable to start work within a fortnight. A significant number of workers aged 16 to 24 became economically inactive during the early stages of the pandemic.

This peaked at 229,000 more between January and March 2021 compared to October to December 2019, representing 42.7% of the increase seen over the period. But by the end of 2021, that figure had returned to pre-pandemic levels, while economic inactivity continued to grow among the elderly.

Proportion of people aged 50+ who are economically inactive in the UK

This means that 57.1% of over-50s were economically inactive in the three months to December – a figure that has increased since the start of the pandemic after a previous drop. Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, called for “urgent action” from ministers during this month’s mini budget to boost jobs and incomes, particularly for unemployed older people.

He said: ‘Employers also need to step up and ensure jobs are advertised and designed in ways that are accessible and inclusive for older people.’ ONS data showed that those employed in professional occupations saw the biggest increase among those aged 50 to 70 becoming economically inactive.

The number rose by around 30,000 in the three months to September last year, compared to the same period before the pandemic. The figure was lower (21,000) for care, leisure and other service occupations, although this was the largest increase in the proportion of the group, from 3.0% to 6.0%.

Evolution of the number of economically inactive people
Evolution of the number of economically inactive people

The ONS also surveyed people aged 50 to 70 who had left or lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic and had not returned. The survey, conducted between February 8 and 13, found that retirement was the most commonly cited reason for leaving a job, with 47% of respondents saying so.

Next come the pandemic itself (15%), illness and disability (13%) and not wanting to work (11%). A government spokesperson said: “Older workers are a huge asset to our economy and there are currently more than 9 million older workers over the age of 50 on employers’ payrolls – an increase of more than 370,000 compared to a year ago.

“Our Jobs Plan is helping hundreds of thousands of older workers retrain, learn new skills and get back to work, including through our ’50 Plus: Choice’ offer. “At our Job Centres, we are helping people take stock of their skills, health and wealth when planning their next career move, with our £400,000 funding boost for MOTs from quarantine, and the guidance and support of our older worker champions.”

Michael A. Bynum