Half a million missing workers reveal the weaknesses of modern Britain

The last two and a half years have been tough for most countries, but few have suffered as much as the UK. The pandemic has been the ultimate stress test of a nation’s fundamental functioning. Does the healthcare system have sufficient capacity and resources to recover? Is the state able to help people get their lives back on track? Great Britain has always come up short.

Perhaps the most damning statistic is what happened to the UK workforce. Between January 2015 and January 2020, unemployment gradually fell in almost a straight line as more people found work. Had this continued, there would be around 8.3 million economically inactive working-age Britons today. Instead, we’ve seen a steep increase to 9 million, the only country in the developed world where people have been disembarking in ever greater numbers beyond the acute phase of the pandemic.

Chart showing that the UK is the only developed country in the world where the proportion of people of working age outside the labor force has continued to rise after the initial pandemic shock

But if the surface stats are damning, what lies beneath is even worse. By analyzing detailed data from the UK Labor Force Survey, I was able to examine what caused this sharp reversal. It reads like a catalog of modern Britain’s greatest hits.

First, a crumbling healthcare system. After years of decline, the number of working-age Britons who are unable to work due to chronic pain has risen by almost 200,000 in the past two years compared to its earlier trajectory.

Chart showing chronic pain, mental health issues and possibly long Covid account for half a million more Britons missing from the workforce

Next, a mental health crisis. The second largest contributor to the increase in unemployment is people who drop out due to mental illness. The pandemic has triggered a sharp acceleration in these conditions, with almost 40 percent of the increase in economic inactivity being attributed to people with a mental health issue that limits their ability to work.

As anyone in healthcare will tell you, physical and mental illness often go hand in hand. Indeed, what seems to have really done for Britain’s missing half a million is a combination of conditions.

Chart showing chronic disease rates have skyrocketed in the UK during the pandemic and are continuing to rise, with millions of people of working age now suffering from multiple health conditions

The number of people of working age in the UK reporting multiple serious health conditions had been falling before Covid-19 but has since risen by 735,000 in just two years.

Perhaps worst of all is the lack of a government response. As the number of people out of work due to illness continues to rise, hundreds of thousands say they would like to work if they could. This willingness is most striking below higher who are unemployed and sick than those who are unemployed and healthy.

These numbers should be a wake-up call. In 2021, the UK government launched its “Restart” scheme, tailored to deal with an unemployment crisis. Now unemployment is near an all-time low, while those outside the labor force have never needed more support. At last count, the scheme has underspent by more than £1bn. Perhaps it could be diverted to those who need it most.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com
@jburnmurdoch

https://www.ft.com/content/b197e9e0-dd53-4d77-a84f-a94824100ed5 Half a million missing workers reveal the weaknesses of modern Britain

Adam Bradshaw

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