About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

The risk older workers face in the wake of COVID-19

The UK Government’s Plan for Jobs 2020 provides much-needed support for people just starting their careers but does little to help older workers. The COVID-19 crisis will result in disproportionate underemployment and unemployment for older workers who represent a greater share of the working population - over-55s represent more than 50 per cent of the employment growth in the decade to 2018. This is not the first time older workers have missed out on support during a crisis. Following the 2008 financial crisis and the MERS outbreak, we saw a similar trend. In order to ensure all workers play a role in the UK’s future growth, the government must provide tailored support that helps those disadvantaged gain the right skills to remain productive and boost the competitiveness of the UK’s workforce.

Where government support is getting it right

The COVID-19 crisis is not just affecting older workers. Young people who are trying to gain work experience are finding it more difficult to enter the workforce. 18-24 year olds already have the highest unemployment rate in the UK of any age group - at about 10.7 per cent, while the average for the UK is 4 per cent. This number is expected to swell by 6 per cent as 800,000 18-24 year olds are due to leave education this year.

The government is taking important steps to help these younger workers by ensuring apprenticeships continue through more flexible guidelines, funding for new trainees, and creating work placements through the new Kickstart Scheme. It is expanding the intensive support offered by DWP through the Youth Offer for young jobseekers. What’s more, the Productivity Through Innovation program is helping small businesses in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire by offering fully funded postgraduate placements and part-funded graduate placements to assist in navigating and responding to the challenges COVID-19 presents. The government is also boosting the supply of digital skills through t-levels, more AI master’s courses, and AI conversion courses for postgraduates.

These are important steps to ensure that this generation does not get left behind and can step onto the career ladder, while helping businesses become more digital and competitive. In response to the trouble young workers find themselves in, the government is offering the kind of tailored support they need.

Older workers are at risk of being left behind

Although many set-asides have been made for youth, the same cannot be said for older workers. The unemployment rate for older people is relatively low, with 2.5 per cent of people over 50 unemployed and in sectors that are less likely to shutdown. However, unemployed older workers experience more long-term unemployment, with 32.4 per cent of people over 50 unable to find a job for longer than 12 months, in comparison to the UK’s average of 19.7 per cent.

COVID-19 has already been particularly devastating for older workers. As Rest Less reports, ‘Universal Credit claims made by the over 50s more than doubled in May compared with March this year, rising from 304,000 to nearly 660,000 in just two months’.

Unfortunately, they are also much less likely to participate in upskilling. As Nesta discussed in its report Education for All on adult learning in the UK, the participation of those aged 25-34 is 60.3 per cent, compared to 39 per cent for those aged 55-64.

At the same time, these workers are less digitally savvy, which makes it harder for them to transition to online work during COVID-19, and maximize their impact in the post pandemic recovery. Although the number of people who don’t use the internet is shrinking, 8.5 per cent of men and 8 per cent of women aged 55-64 still don’t use the internet. This rises to 18.4 per cent of men and 21.1 per cent of women aged 65-74. Older people in lower socioeconomic groups are also half as likely to use the internet as those in the highest group. This makes it difficult for older workers, particularly those already in lower income groups, to switch to a digital-first, remote way of working.

Older workers have not received tailored job support in the wake of COVID-19 that meets these unique needs around basic digital skills and upskilling. Retaining its older workforce can add a boost to the labour force, like when women joined en masse in the 1980s, increasing the female employment rate from 56.9 per cent in 1980 to 72.7 per cent today. PwC estimates that the UK’s GDP could be boosted by £80 billion in the long run if it could match Sweden’s employment rates for the over 55s.

The UK should support older workers to continue contributing their expertise and untap this source of knowledge and labour.

If the UK is to maximise the full potential of its labour force, the government needs to support organisations that provide age-specific training to ensure older workers can be upskilled in ways that reflect their unique needs. There are many examples of how to meet older workers’ needs. For example, Age UK’s One Digital program did a great job of supporting older people to gain digital confidence and helped more than 11,000 people across the UK to get online. Rest Less is helping its 200,000+ members in the UK who are over 50 find jobs, volunteer opportunities or the skills they need to work or improve their wellbeing. There is much to learn from what is already working in the UK and abroad. As was discussed in the government’s 2015 report on the matter, it also needs to do more to incentivise employers to ‘retain, retrain and recruit’ older workers - which is more important in response to COVID-19.

Not providing tailored support will most likely result in a large portion of the UK’s workforce remaining stagnant after the COVID-19 crisis, and requiring more government assistance. Untapping the potential of older workers through more digital skills and upskilling will provide a much needed injection of experienced talent into the workforce, which can help power the UK’s recovery.


Charles McIvor

Charles McIvor

Charles McIvor

Policy Adviser, Future of Work

Based in Nesta's Research, Analysis and Policy team, Charles conducted policy analysis regarding the impact of technology on work and jobs.

View profile