Zero-hours contracts among over-50s hit highest level recorded

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Zero-hours contracts among the over-50s have reached their highest level since records began, according to new analysis of official government statistics.

There are nearly 300,000 people aged 50 and older with zero-hours contracts, the highest number for this age group since records began in 2013 and almost double the number 10 years ago, from 149,000 in October to December 2013 to 296,000 in July to September 2022.

More than a quarter of the total number of zero-hours contracts are held by workers aged 50+, according to the analysis of Office of National Statistics data.

“The large rise in the number of people aged 50+ working under zero-hours contracts is worrying,” said Stuart Lewis, chief executive of Rest Less, a digital community and advocate for people in their 50s and older, which analysed the data.

“We know many who have turned to zero-hours contracts because they were unable to find a more permanent or structured type of work thanks to age discrimination or a lack of workplace flexibility,” he added. “Others are juggling zero-hours contracts alongside other part-time roles to top up working hours to make ends meet amidst double-digit inflation.”

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Rebecca Rees, 56, lives in Sussex with her husband. Currently unemployed, Rees was in nursing for 38 years and a health visitor for 20 years. “In 2014, I had no choice but to give up my full-time contract in the NHS so that I could work more flexibly while caring for my late mother,” she said. “The only option the NHS offered me was a zero-hours contract.”

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During the pandemic, however, Rees lost her job without warning and has been unemployed ever since. “I learned the hard way that my zero-hours contract left me vulnerable to a situation that was completely unforeseen,” she said.

Chris Peace, director of campaigning organisation Zero Hours Justice, warned that the usual challenges of relying on a zero-hours contract – the insecurity of not knowing whether one is working or not, whether one has enough money coming in to pay their bills, and what one’s employment rights are – are exacerbated for those aged over 50 because of how their inconsistent wages affect their financial planning as they get closer to retirement.

“Often, pension contributions of those over 50 are particularly badly affected because their wages fluctuate month to month,” said Peace. “Added to which, the use of zero-hours contracts is rife in the health and social care sector, and the impact on women over 50 in this sector is worrying.”

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said that zero-hour contracts are on the rise among older people because, “sadly, it’s often very hard to find a new job in your 50s and beyond, because ageism is rife in the labour market. Yet in reality, there is a wealth of knowledge, talent and experience among older workers, who frequently make fantastic contributions through the jobs they do”.

Dr Emily Andrews, deputy director for work at the Centre for Ageing Better, said that while zero-hours contracts support many older workers to remain active in the labour market as their circumstances change, “all too often, these contracts mean one-sided flexibility in favour of the employer. Last-minute changes to shifts leave people unable to structure their time or plan their finances. This is particularly worrying in a cost-of-living crisis”.

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