Notwithstanding record low unemployment figures, the size of the workforce has shrunk: the number of people in employment is still lower than before the pandemic. Virtually every enterprise that I visit or speak to is under-recruited, they just can’t get the staff that they need.
So often in their response, like the Confederation of British Industry, they demand increased immigration to deliver the workers that they need.
As a small and crowded island that saw net migration rise to half a million in the year to June 2022, we cannot just go on importing the next generation of workers. An imported workforce comes with additional housing needs and demands on public services. We have to moderate our addiction to foreign workers, now even Labour says so.
There are now 630,000 more economically inactive adults of working age than before the pandemic. The Chancellor had the right priority when he announced last week that he is to fund the department of Work and Pensions to require hundreds of thousands more benefit claimants to meet a work coach to get the support they need to increase the hours that they work.
I am an elected member of the Commons Work & Pensions Select Committee and when I’ve asked witnesses about the cause of the reduced workforce, I’m told that long-term sickness has increased because of the inability of the NHS to deliver the necessary healthcare. I’m sceptical: in the past work-related sickness was overwhelmingly musculoskeletal, but now it is stress and anxiety related. These conditions, however debilitating, are quite treatable. After all, work is good for mental health and self-esteem.
Given that I represent a constituency with one of the highest age profiles I was particularly interested in data that Phoenix Insights, a longevity think tank has shared with me. Their polling casts doubt on the suggestion that poor healthcare is a cause of economic inactivity. Of the 50 to 64-year-olds who have left the workforce since the pandemic, only 16% gave long-term sickness or disability as their reason for doing so. The main reason they gave was that they didn’t want to work any longer. In fact, 70% of those who left work in their early fifties said that they did not want to go back to work.
Interestingly, we appear to have a more negative attitude to work that in the USA or Germany: 58% of workers in the UK liked their job, compared to 74% in the USA and 73% in Germany. 40% of workers in the UK said that the coronavirus pandemic made them rethink how they view working, compared to only 28% in the US and 30% in Germany
I have misgivings about increasing benefits when real wages are falling. Perhaps cost-of-living pressures may still exert pressure to return to work, but I think there is a message in these statistics for employers too: quality of life in the workplace is going to be a key element in recruitment