OPINION - One in five Brits is neither in work nor looking for work—it’s chronic

Anna van Praagh (Matt Writtle)
Anna van Praagh (Matt Writtle)

The word “permacrisis” has been added to the dictionary as a term that defines 2022 and now, to top it all, we’re officially in a recession. The bizarrely good news is, however, that unemployment, at 3.6 per cent, is at its lowest level for nearly half a century and experts predict that unlike the recession in the Eighties when unemployment soared to double digits, this time it won’t exceed five per cent.

But even this isn’t really good news. In fact, this low unemployment figure actually hides something deeply troubling. One in five Britons aged 16 to 64 now describes themselves as neither in work or looking for work. More than five million of us are completely economically inactive and claiming out-of-work benefits.

Even more worryingly, this figure is constantly rising. The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast a rise of 13.4 per cent in health and disability spending by 2026, which will cost the Government £7.5 billion.

The OBR said that the increase in the number and length of claims could be driven by mental illness and long Covid. A backlog of seven million people waiting for NHS treatments is certainly unhelpful. But is there something more concerning at play about people simply checking out of life, preferring never to leave the house since the pandemic? I was struck by a recent study published by French centre-Left think-tank the Jean-Jaures Foundation, which revealed a similar malaise.

French people, according to the authors, particularly the young, are struggling to find the energy to leave the house, for work or for pleasure, and can’t even be bothered to go to restaurants or the cinema. A poll they conducted found that 45 per cent of those surveyed “regularly cannot be bothered to go out”.

Respondents were asked whether certain words inspired positive or negative sentiments. “‘Rest”’ was viewed more positively than “‘effort”’ or “‘work”’ and “‘bed”’ more than “‘career”’. Back in the UK, you might think it’s mainly over-50s dropping out of the workforce, but ONS analysis showed the biggest increase in inactivity from long-term sickness was among younger people, with a staggering 42 per cent rise in the 25-34 age group and 29 per cent for the 16 to 24-year-olds.

In 2023, it’s predicted that the UK will be the only big economy in which employment is lower than before the pandemic because of all these people who have left the labour market. As they are so young, the ramifications could last for decades.

It’s bad for productivity, disastrous for the welfare budget, and this workless life isn’t even making anyone happier — use of anti-depressants has never been higher, up 22 per cent since 2015.

It’s terrible to read of so many people checking out of their own lives and all that wasted talent. Of all the lasting impacts of the pandemic, I find this one to be thesaddest.

I’m gripped by Jamie Fiore Higgins memoir Bully Market

I am gripped by Bully Market, the memoir by Jamie Fiore Higgins, about the toxic boys’ club of Goldman Sachs and am cheering her from the sidelines for improving workplace culture for women.

A friend of mine, who is very senior at a so-called Magic Circle law firm, says her colleagues can’t bear the “woke” new intake who set boundaries at work and won’t tolerate certain toxic male behaviour, while she is full of admiration for them.

When I started my career I often came into the office to find a male colleague engrossed in porn — I wouldn’t have dreamt of mentioning it to anyone. When male colleagues asked me to pose naked straddling a chair, Christine Keeler-style, for the paper I actually did it.

My generation was taught to be grateful to have jobs that men wanted. If a male colleague made a pass you just removed their hand and — with a smile — told them to f*** off.

This generation wants to move the needle. I salute them.