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Number of people who have never worked grows by half in 20 years

Kalila Sangster
Waiter taking order from her customer in a restaurant
The employment rate of 16- to 17-year-olds has halved over the past two decades. Photo: Getty

The number of people who have never worked increased by 52% in the past 20 years, according to new research.

A report by think tank Resolution Foundation found that 8.2% of 16- to 64-year-olds in the UK today have never had a paid job outside of casual and holiday work — a total of 3.4 million people. This compares with 5.4% in same age group who never had a paid job in 1998.

The report points to the “death of the Saturday job” as one of the main reasons as the number of 16- to 17-year-olds in work has almost halved over the past two decades — down to 25.4% in 2017-19 from 48.% in 1997-99.

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Young people were prioritising their studies over part-time work, the report noted, as there has also been a significant drop in the employment rate of students in further and higher education.

Meanwhile, the transition from education to the workplace is also taking longer. Today only 44% of young education leavers who had never previously worked get a paid job within the first year after leaving, compared with 56% in the late 1990s.

Laura Gardiner, research director at the Resolution Foundation said: “With young people today expected to end their working lives at a later age than previous generations, it’s understandable that they want to start their working lives at a later age too.

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“But this lack of work experience can create longer-term problems, particularly if they hit other life milestones like motherhood or ill-health before their careers have got off the ground.”

Motherhood and ill-health in early adulthood are also reasons for never working, the report found.

The number of 25- to 39-year-old mothers who have never worked has gone up to 6.5% from 3.3% in the late 1990s while the proportion of 25- to 39-year-old men with health problems who have never worked rose from 4.8% to 7.6%.

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The rise in the number of people who have never worked comes despite the fact that UK employment rates hit record highs in October 2019.

Gardiner said: “One commonly asserted explanation — that a generous welfare system has increasingly allowed families to choose a life of worklessness — is very wide of the mark. Household worklessness is at record lows and the generosity of out-of-work benefits has declined over recent decades.

“Instead, the growth in the proportion of people who have never worked reflects changes in the lifecycle journey from education to employment, in particular a reduction in ‘earning while learning’ and slower transitions from education to employment.”