Home Business News Economic inactivity in the UK is like playing football with nine players

Economic inactivity in the UK is like playing football with nine players

20th Mar 24 1:02 pm

There has been a lot of talk about the UK’s crippling level of economic inactivity amongst working age people which currently stands at 21.8% of our total working age population, that’s 9.2 million of those aged 16 to 64.

Playing short-handed 

To put that into some perspective it’s like we’re playing a vital World Cup qualifier with only nine players on the pitch at kick-off.

To continue with the metaphor, not only are we playing short-handed, but we’re also paying match-fees to players who have no intention or interest in lacing up their boots and getting into the game.

There are of course several classes of working aged people who have good reason to be economically inactive, and that is the case in any economy, but there are some who I, and I’m not alone, feel should be pulling their weight for the economy, especially at a time when people are struggling to make ends meet.

Not all economic inactivity is the same

There are also two distinct types of economically inactive, the first can be characterised by someone aged between 16-64 who has perhaps retired early, having contributed for a number of years and are able to support themselves through independent means. The independently wealthy would also fall into this category. University students are also classed as economically inactive, assuming they don’t work part-time to support themselves.

Obviously those living off their own funds are not taking anything out of the system, and they are of course putting their stored wealth back into the economy in the form of the goods and services that they use and pay for. For me it would be wonderful if we could coax some of these individuals back into work, especially considering many have done well in life and business and would be assets to UK PLC, given their experience and past success.

The second type of economically inactive ‘workers’ not only don’t contribute positively to the economy but also represent a cost in the form of benefits and other services they consume, including state funded benefits and medical services. Clearly some of this group require help of this kind and as a caring society we are morally obliged to look after them.

All economically inactive are not work-shy

Before I go any further I want to be very clear that so far I have no problem with any of these economically inactive workers. I’ve appeared on a number of television news shows in the past week and there has been some anger aimed in my direction by those who would accuse me of labelling all 9.2 million, including the sick and disabled, as a bunch of work-shy slackers. This is not true.

For those who don’t instantly start ranting at the telly when I come on – often missing what I actually say in favour of what you think someone like me would think – never fear, I haven’t joined the woke brigade.

The work-shy exist and they are a problem

As the TV hosts like to ask, have we as a nation lost our work ethic? I think not, but there is a worrying trend towards what I would call ‘work-shyness’ that seems to be infecting younger members of the population.

Between 2019 and 2022, the number of those aged between 16 and 34 on long-term sickness increased by 140,000, compared to just 32,000 for those aged between 35 and 49. Today we have 700,000 more people signed off as long-term sick than there were at the end of 2019. If this isn’t evidence of what I call a general trend towards work-shyness I don’t know what is.

With 988,000 vacancies skills are an issue

We have 988,000 job vacancies in the economy, and yes part of that is down to a skills shortage of our own making thanks to poor planning and training too many graduates for non-existent roles. But, if we are to recover our former greatness as a country and as an economy, we need to get as many people pulling together to generate wealth.

Too many reasons to go on the sick

The problem is we seem to be getting better and better at finding reasons for people to not work, and with each new non-worker, we lose capacity and create a new cost. It’s a double-whammy we can least afford with a national debt practically equal to an entire year’s GDP.

How do we turn around the oil tanker? Well, a lot of the extra long-term sickness seems to be coming from younger people, so it seems reasonable to conclude they might be where we need to focus. Those in their 40s appear to be far better at going to work than those in their 20s, who feature heavily in the long-term illness figures.

Too woke to work

Having employed thousands of people over the years it does seem to me that we have created a too woke generation so ‘in touch with their inner feelings’ that at the first sign of trouble they’re off to the GP claiming ‘mental health’ issues.

Clearly sometimes they may be right, but it feels like the pendulum has gone too far in one direction. Once a GP had to pick their way through denial to diagnose mental illnesses like depression, nowadays patients arrive pre-diagnosed in their own heads. Overworked GPs are faced with a choice thanks to our 21st century zero-risk culture: do a proper job and risk a mistake and a trip in front of the General Medical Council, or sign patients off on the sick.

Skills training and GP power can reactivate young workers

For me the answer to all of this is to look at the problem in the round with a view to reactivate as many economically inactive workers as possible. Give them training if that’s what’s required? I can’t help thinking that if young people have a job they love and that gives them respect and a good income that they would be less likely to feel like a trip to the GP in the first place. If I’d trained for something for three years on the promise of a fulfilling well-paid job and I ended up making coffee I’d be pissed off with my lot in life too.

That said, I think the Government needs to back GPs to do a proper job, so that they can be confident they will not be thrown under the bus on the rare occasion when they might get things wrong.

Do we still have the grit to survive and recover?

I’m not a doctor, nor am I a politician, but my plumber’s maths tells me that if we continue to have less people working and paying into the system, and more people putting their hands up for something for nothing, the system will fall apart.

Looking around some days it really does look like we’re already on the slide to rack and ruin. But there is hope, I started my first business, the precursor to Pimlico Plumbers, as a 19 year old self-employed plumber. Things were pretty bad back then and we pulled ourselves out of it.

All we need is some more of that British grit people had back then. The only worry for me is do we still have what it takes in our national psyche?

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