Exclusive: The forgotten army of over-50s women, whose unemployment has jumped by 45% since 2010

Political Editor

The Government is under pressure to take action to help a “forgotten army” of women over the age of 50 who want to work but cannot find jobs.

Although Coalition ministers repeatedly trumpet the falls in unemployment, the monthly statistics mask a sharp increase in joblessness among women. The small print of the official figures shows that the number of unemployed women over 50 has risen from 111,000 in the three months before the Coalition was formed in 2010 to 161,000 – a 45 per cent jump. 

Over the same period,  the number of jobless men in the same age group has fallen from 264,000 to 229,000 – a drop of 13 per cent.

Labour seized on the figures and claimed that the £5 billion Work Programme for the jobless is failing older women because only 9.5 per cent of those on the scheme find sustained employment, the lowest success rate of any group.

However, the Department of Work and Pensions dismissed the Labour claims as “nonsense”. It insisted: “The proportion of women between 50 and 64 who are in work is at its highest level ever - 63.2 per cent, compared to 58.6 per cent in 2010. The proportion not in work has actually fallen nearly five percentage points since 2010.”

Experts say the hidden increase in unemployment is due to more older women returning to the labour market, reflecting the rise in the state pension age from 60 to 65 to bring them into line with men, and because many families needed to boost their incomes during a period of wage stagnation. Another factor is that the deficit-reduction programme will see one million jobs lost in the public sector, a big employer of women. Although the losses are being dwarfed by the growth in private sector jobs, many of these are going to men.

Ian Brinkley, chief economist at the Work Foundation, said: “It looks as if many more older women are entering or returning to the labour market than older men – so that while inactivity has gone down and employment for older women has gone up, so too has unemployment. There is an underlying longer term structural trend towards higher participation by older women. But one more immediate reason may be the squeeze on real wages and benefits is forcing more family members – in this case older women - to return to the labour market and seek work or replace the earnings of a family member who has been made redundant.”

Daisy Sands, head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society, which champions equality between the sexes, said: "Women still face a lifetime of earning an average 16 per cent less than men. For older women, especially those over 50, many of these challenges are even more marked. They face an even larger pay gap and, as these findings show, soaring unemployment. Half of women aged 50-64 are employed in the public sector, meaning dramatic cuts to this sphere are hitting them disproportionately.”

Sharon Hodgson, the shadow Equalities Minister, said: “These figures are yet more proof that David Cameron has no answer to the cost of living crisis affecting tens of thousands of older women and their families. His Work Programme is failing them, and tens of thousands more find themselves unemployed under this Government.”

Ms Hodgson added: “If we’re going to build a sustainable recovery we need to ensure that we don’t waste the talents of some of our most experienced and valuable workers. Ministers need to stop dragging their feet on the appointment of an Older Workers Champion, and they should implement Labour’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee to ensure that older women who have been out of work for over two years have a chance of proper paid work.”

The DWP said: "We know that industry figures are showing that around half a million people have found a job through the Work Programme and we've recently launched even more support for jobseekers through Help to Work. We'll be appointing a business champion for older workers soon too, to make sure everyone in the jobs market can benefit from the growing economy."

The Government will also publish a Framework for Action on the business case for helping older workers stay in the labour market.

John Philpott, a labour market expert who blogs as The Jobs Economist, said the number of women aged 50 and over in work has increased by 474,000 (about 13 per cent) since spring 2010, outstripping the increase of 446,000 (about 10 per cent) for men. “The relative deterioration in the unemployment situation of women does not therefore reflect relatively adverse job prospects but instead a relatively larger influx to the labour market of older women, probably due in part to the ongoing increase in the state pension age for women which is in the process of being equalised with that of men,” he said.

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