March jobs figures: A timely reminder that we must not lose sight of those already out of work

Press Releases

18 Mar 2020

Today’s jobs figures feel like they’re describing a labour market entirely different to the one that employers and governments are now trying to hold together. They show that we started the year with record-breaking employment, nudging 33 million people in work and with a joint highest employment rate of 76.5%. Unemployment crept up last month, but this was explained by a large fall in ‘economic inactivity’ (down by 175 thousand) rather than falling employment – so the labour force overall was continuing to grow.

However they also give us a timely reminder of how important it is that we don’t lose sight of those people already out of work in responding to the crises that we now face.  Today’s figures show that despite economic inactivity falling overall, it was continuing to rise strongly for those with long-term health conditions – up by 50 thousand in the last three months, to 2.12 million.  This is the highest that it has been since July 2012, while the share of inactivity due to long-term ill health is at the highest it’s been since 2005.  As we have said for some months now, we can and must do more – through the benefits system and employment support – for those who cannot work due to long-term ill health.

Adding together those unemployed and those who are economically inactive and who want to work, there were 3.2 million people who actively wanted to work or were seeking it at the turn of the year.  Our near-record low unemployment figures also mask that 300 thousand people had been unemployed for a year or longer, with one third of these are aged over 50. 

Looking ahead, rightly, our immediate focus must be on how we support the many millions of workers at risk of losing their jobs or facing significant losses of income.  We’ve set out our views on some immediate steps that must be taken this week in order to do that.  However, we must not also lose sight of the fact that those who are already out of work will only become more disadvantaged as we work our way through this crisis.  So it’s imperative that in the coming months we put in place the right support – through the benefits system and specialist employment services – to respond.


About the Institute for Employment Studies (IES)

The Institute for Employment Studies is a leading independent, not-for-profit centre for research and evidence-based consultancy on employment, the labour market and HR policy and practice.

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About Tony Wilson

Tony joined IES in October 2018 from his previous role as Director of Policy and Research at the Learning and Work Institute. He holds more than fifteen years’ experience of employment research, policy and programme management, leading a wide range of research programmes including disability employment, pay and progression, employment and skills devolution and employment service reform.

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