Not retiring: getting Britain working, or at least less unhealthy

The rising level of economic inactivity due to long-term health and disability issues is a key one for the election. So what can be done about it?

Man having a doctor's appointment


All the main manifestos are out so what are the parties promising specifically for older workers? Of course, older workers are affected by all the usual infrastructural issues of access to health and social care, housing and so forth, but there has been a particular focus of late on older people who have dropped out of the workforce due to early retirement or health issues.

A Resolution Foundation report published yesterday said addressing rising incapacity and disability benefit spending will be a key task for whoever wins the next election. It says it is vital that whoever gains power seeks to understand the underlying causes of this increase [a rise in claimants] rather than just to cut benefits and throw more people into poverty.

It notes that real-terms spending on working-age incapacity benefits increased by a third over the past decade (2013-14 to 2022-23), and disability benefits by 89 per cent. And this rise is forecast to accelerate over the next six years. Lindsay Judge, Research Director at the Resolution Foundation, says: “The underlying increase in ill-health and disability poses a major challenge to policy makers, and to the millions of people whose living standards are affected by their conditions.

“There are no easy fixes to this problem. This isn’t down to people gaming the system, or support somehow being easier to claim. Nor is it the case that a so-called ‘benefits clampdown’ would produce easy, pain-free savings.

“Instead, the growing health-related benefit spend reflects the fact that Britain is becoming older, sicker and experiencing more disability, and that previous reforms have often been poorly designed. We therefore need to focus more on enabling people to enjoy longer, healthier working lives – a goal that requires an integrated strategy involving the NHS and employers, as much as the Treasury and DWP.”

So what do the parties say they will do? Labour’s manifesto says it will bring Jobcentre Plus and the National Careers Service together to provide a national jobs and careers service, focused on getting people into work and helping them get on at work. It says this will be done in partnership with local employers and services.

To address the high number of people who have dropped out of the workforce since Covid, Labour says it will work with local areas to create plans to support more disabled people and those with health conditions into work, devolving funding so local areas can shape a joined-up work, health and skills offer for local people. Labour says it will tackle the backlog of Access to Work claims and give disabled people the confidence to start working “without the fear of an immediate benefit reassessment if it does not work out”. The manifesto adds: “We believe the Work Capability Assessment is not working and needs to be reformed or replaced, alongside a proper plan to support disabled people to work.”

Labour has also pledged to create a sustainable National Care Service. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have announced an extra 730m pounds for mental heath treatment to keep people in work, to be paid for by benefits savings. The announcement is part of their plans to reform benefits and reduce the number of people who are off work due to long-term sickness, which Rishi Sunak has referred to as Britain’s “sicknote culture”. That includes bringing forward changes to disability benefits, tightening work capability assessment criteria and taking the power to sign sick notes away from GPs.

The Liberal Democrats have put care at the centre of their manifesto. They have pledged to overhaul the Carer’s Allowance system “so that it provides real financial support to those who need it”, establish free personal care and offer a higher minimum wage for care workers.

Health is a crucial issue for UK productivity and there is a huge role for employers to play in ensuring people can work for longer, that work doesn’t make them sick and that those who have dropped out are helped back in if they are able to and want to return. That means learning the lessons from other marginalised workers, including working mums. Our sister site – – has been charting all of this for years and yet still there are many very capable, experienced women unable to get back to their careers after taking time out for caring responsibilities. So many people are able to contribute, but the labour market continues to shut them out. That is a lost opportunity for us all.

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