The Great Unretirement: necessary evil or new normal?

ONS data shows that more than 100,000 people aged 50-64 have returned to work in past year

Man working
Soaring living costs are likely to be a key reason for the return to work
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Tens of thousands of people who retired during the pandemic are rejoining the workforce in a trend dubbed the “Great Unretirement”.

Latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows an increase in economic activity – people in or looking for work – of 116,000 among the over-50s over the past year. Between August and October alone, the number of people aged between 50 and 64 who classed themselves as retired fell by 84,000.

The Telegraph suggested that “soaring living costs – as inflation runs at a 41-year-high – are likely a key reason for the return to work”.

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‘Older people bearing the brunt’

In the UK, roughly half a million more over-50s became “economically inactive” after Covid hit, according to the ONS.

The recent drop in inactivity among the age group is “small” but “could be the start of a large-scale ‘unretirement’”, said The Telegraph. Sam Beckett, head of economic statistics at the ONS, said the reversal “tallies with other data which suggest more people in their 50s are thinking of going back to work”.

The Great Unretirement has been linked to “spiralling inflation, volatile financial markets and the soaring cost of living”, said The Guardian.

“People who thought they could retire comfortably during the pandemic are having to unretire and find work again to bring in extra income and top up their pensions while they still can,” said Stuart Lewis, the chief executive of Rest Less, a digital community for the over-50s.

Older people, and particularly pensioners, “are expected to bear the heaviest brunt of the soaring cost of living”, This Is Money reported. The state pension, currently £9,627 a year, will be “swallowed up by rising energy bills” this winter unless the government offers additional help.

“It is little wonder then that so many feel they must carry on working into old age,” the site added.

‘A sense of purpose’

The UK is an outlier in unretirement terms. A study by the Learning and Work Institute found that the UK has seen a slower post-Covid return to economic activity among people aged 55-64 than other countries including Germany, Italy, the US, Japan and Australia.

“That may well be down to the state of the workplace in Britain,” said Paul Waugh on the i news site.

An international survey of 4,500 over-50s by Business Leader found that “people in the UK were less satisfied with the number of hours they worked (26%), their work-life balance (25%), their commute (25%) and their levels of pay (20%) than their American and German counterparts”.

This reported dissatisfaction may also explain why so many workers of all ages have been “quiet quitting” this year, Waugh added.

The economic inactivity hike during the pandemic came about not because people were “too sick to work but because they are sick of working”, agreed Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times. Yet while retiring early may seem desirable in the short term, “what is clear from multiple studies is that health and happiness in later life is strongly correlated with a sense of purpose”, she continued.

Some of the people coming out of retirement may have realised that work is “a great way to maintain a sense of purpose in later life and to support mental health”. But if many others conclude that “work is optional, or even hostile, we are in serious trouble”.

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