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Don’t accept ‘economic inactivity’, deal with it!

Job Centre Plus offices, Blyth, Northumberland. Photo Hazel Plater/Alamy Stock Photo.

A country where a quarter of the workforce is not working is destined to decline. What is going on? Who are the nearly 9 million people “not actively looking for work”?

On 11 June, news reports briefly led on the rise in Britain’s unemployment rate to 4.4 per cent, up from the previous figure of 4.3 per cent. Less attention was paid to another, much greater figure – those people not working.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reported that there was also an increase in what is called the “inactivity rate”. In the period from February to April this year 22.3 per cent of working age people were deemed not to be actively looking for work – the highest figure in over a decade.

That’s more than a quarter of the working population not in work. The whole working class needs to be talking about this – not least because a third of businesses are short-staffed at least once a week because of sickness and hiring challenges. And almost every service sector cannot find the workers it needs.


People Management, a human resources professional publication, says that research findings are leading to calls for firms to have a contingency plan to minimise the impact of staff absence. It’s a big problem for the British economy. Staff absences reduce productivity and can lead to workers doing more overtime, ending up feeling burnt out.

Marxism explains that the wealth a country needs to prosper can only come from two sources: namely, from our natural resources or from the labour of workers which produces value. Under capitalism much of that value is expropriated as profit by the capitalist class rather than invested back into the country.

A country where a quarter of the workforce is not working is destined to decline. Even under socialism it would be impossible for a country to survive with this level of “economic inactivity”.

There is an urgent need to understand what is going on. Who are the nearly 9 million people “not actively looking for work”?

The ONS has carried out some research and analysis. Most of the 2.7 million under-25s not actively looking for work are students. That’s understandable, but the figure is rising.

‘Even under socialism it would be impossible for a country to survive with this level of “economic inactivity”…’

There are 3.5 million over-50s out of the job market – mainly through illness and early retirement. Few of those who retire early said they were interested in returning to work. How much of the illness in this age group is a function of long NHS waiting lists is uncertain, but that figure is rising. It will include, for example, those waiting for simple surgery such as a hernia repair. Not addressing the ill health of this age group creates longer term problems.

Nearly one million people in the 25- to 49-year-old age group are not working because of illness (fairly evenly split between men and women). It is very early in the life cycle to be too ill to work and represents a great personal loss as well as a societal loss.

This is not short-term illness of young people which would be covered by sick pay. This is long-term illness where the individual is unavailable for work. And the proportion of people of all ages inactive through sickness now stands at 7 per cent – the highest ever.

Caring responsibilities

In the 25- to 49-year-old age bracket, 1.1 million people, about a million of whom are women, do not work because of caring responsibilities. Described as “economically inactive” maybe, but they will be working hard in the domestic sphere. The unavailability of social care and the high cost of child care will be significant factors.

And of those who report to the ONS surveys that they want to return to work, many say that high child care costs will mean that they lose out financially by being in work.

The Co-operative Bank surveyed the most affordable British cities for childcare. It ranked London as the most expensive city, with an average monthly cost of £1,781. Liverpool was the most affordable at £800.

Work is good for you

The Thatcher government ignored the Black Report on health inequalities in 1980. Since then, the public health evidence that being in work is better for physical and mental health has only grown. This is acknowledged on official government health websites. And there is strong evidence that it is difficult to return to work after prolonged periods of inactivity.

‘Many who want to return to work say that high child care costs mean that they lose out financially by being in work…’

The stark fact is this: just the figure of nearly one million 25- to 49-year-olds not working due to illness as a proportion of the “economically inactive” is more than the 672,000 net immigration into Britain in 2023 (some of whom will be dependants and not in the workforce).

This situation is justified by employers as necessary because of “labour shortages”. But we as a working class know that mass immigration contributes to suppressing wages. The exceptional exploitation of overseas staff in care homes may be an extreme case, but is not an isolated one.

We need to unravel the causes of the illness of over a million adults between 25 and 49 years old. Clearly not all illness in this age group is compatible with participation in the workforce, but most could contribute. There is good evidence that returning to work will improve their physical and mental health.

If the unspoken story is that returning to work weakens the already poor financial position of those million members of our class, then that is a conversation we all need to have too. It is a conversation about pay and control in the workplace.