All workers face tough decisions during the cost of living crisis, but is the Government listening?

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Delivery driver unloading a box from a van. © Photo by KAZEM HUSSEIN on Unsplash

As the cost-of-living crisis continues to escalate, workers across all sectors and forms of employment status are increasingly facing tough decisions - can I cut back on expenses, can I secure more hours and boost my income, do I need to change jobs entirely? But the extent to which individuals and families have options to help them mitigate the largest fall in real wages in living memory varies significantly.

I took part in BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme last week and heard from a range of members of the public who were each struggling to make ends meet. This included older workers who chose early retirement during and immediately after the worst period of the pandemic, and who now find that they can no longer afford to opt out of the jobs market.

These workers account for a significant proportion of the rise in “economic inactivity” that we have seen in 2022, which in turn has contributed to record job vacancies going unfilled and substantial worker shortages. But between March and May 2022, economic inactivity among people aged 50 and over reduced by 130,000 from the previous quarter. This could bring benefits to the economy, helping to meet demand in key sectors, but the fact that the risk of financial hardship is a primary driver for people changing their minds is concerning.

After all, ONS research suggests that more than a quarter of those over 50 who opted out of the jobs market in recent years did so due to ill health, and of those who chose early retirement, over 10% cited feeling stressed or burned out at work.

The pressures these individuals now face to secure work could worsen these underlying conditions and tensions, especially as it won’t always be straightforward for these workers to return to the labour market, at least not in the kinds of roles they once occupied. Indeed, Richard - a caller to You and Yours who had retired early from a successful career in logistics - has had to return to work has become a delivery driver to cover rising costs. At first, he returned to work on a part-time basis during the pandemic but is now full-time and expects to have to continue this work for at least the medium term in order to make ends meet.

In this context it is vital that we see more support for older workers returning to the labour market. Last week, Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss says she would "tighten up incentives in our welfare system" to encourage people to join to the workforce. Government must go beyond encouragement and should prioritise enhanced employment services capable of connecting older workers with secure jobs that reflect their skills and experience, and for employers, guaranteeing flexible working practices will help ensure that older workers they do recruit are less likely to suffer ill-health, and ultimately drop back out of the workforce again.

Another group facing extremely tough choices is those in part-time work, many of whom will already be thinking about how to meet rising bills and falling real wages. But the reality is extra hours can’t just be turned on like a tap.

For starters, many people who work part-time do so because they must fit work in around other responsibilities – for example, childcare. Very often the lack of availability and costs associated with extending childcare make it impossible for parents to take on extra shifts over and above what they already work. Many part-time workers are already maxing out on the long hours. Taking on even more shifts will only serve to increase stress and burn out and won’t be sustainable over the coming months. Employers can’t always provide more work, as they are also facing the impact of inflation and will be facing tough decisions to balance the books during this period.

Overall, the biggest thing I took away from those members of the public who called in to You and Yours was the extent of uncertainty and insecurity they all felt over what the coming months and years hold for them and the economy more widely.

It is vital that we hear much more from Government and our future Prime Minister as to what the long-term plans are to buffer people from the worst impacts of rising inflation and economic turbulence. While details of the Government’s £400 energy payment scheme for the winter have been given, we need to move away from ad hoc announcement. A proper schedule of ongoing support is required, alongside a strategy to return the UK economy to growth. And both must be communicated clearly and regularly to the British public.

This is the central challenge that whoever wins the Tory Leadership race needs to grasp on day one of becoming Prime Minister.


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