The rise (and fall) of never-worked households

Long-term worklessness needs to be addressed with specific actions, rather than generalisations based on headline statistics, says Chris Goulden.  

A family in which no-one has ever worked sounds worrying on the face of it. It sparks the idea of long-term welfare dependency, with people spending years or even decades unable, or unwilling, to get a job. The statistics on such ‘never-worked’ households have become a regular part of the ONS release calendar and have been a cause of concern on both the left and right of the political spectrum.  Such concerns were especially the case when the numbers were rising sharply from the mid-1990s until levelling off and declining since 2005.

Today, JRF publishes a report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, who have investigated these figures in forensic detail to see what is going on and to try to understand a bit more about the rise and fall of never-worked households.

There are 20 million households with someone of working age in the UK. Of these, 3.7 million did not have anyone in them who worked in 2012, and less than one in ten of these (340,000) was made up of people who had never worked. A significant proportion of these are students – when they are removed, the figure falls to 265,000. ONS have since updated their figures and the latest for 2014 is 226,000.

The main messages, then, are that it’s a small part of the overall problem of unemployment and, while it’s still higher than in the late 1990s, it does seem to be falling. This probably reflects young people increasingly being unable to afford to leave the family home and rising rates of employment for single parents.

But who are these households and why have they never worked? The research tries to unpick these questions using the available statistics.

Most are lone parents or younger single people – the stats don’t differentiate between people who have never worked for a day when they fill in the survey and those who’ve been workless for decades. You’re more likely to have never worked if you’ve just left education. However, it does seem that getting a first job has got harder for this group since the mid-90s. There is a concentration in metropolitan areas – especially London, where one in five of all never-worked households live and, relatedly, among non-EU born migrants, certain ethnic minority groups and Muslims. These are all likely to be connected factors.

So while the bulk of never-worked households overall reflects the UK majority population (white, UK-born and Christian or with no religion), there are higher risks for minority groups. Although we can’t tell from the data whether these risks overlap, it seems likely that there are different processes underlying the overall figure. For instance, nearly half of never-worked households are headed by a disabled person, where being out of work may be longer term than for young people seeking their first job.

It probably doesn’t make much sense, then, to talk about never-worked households as a homogeneous group. Some of the issue is to do with people who either cannot work because of disability or could work but face discrimination and barriers to entering work; and some is due to lone parents caring for younger children. Others are young people or migrants who haven’t yet been able to enter the labour market because they are newly-arrived or face language barriers, for example.

All these problems need specific policy responses that help people to get jobs when they are seeking them and provide adequate support when they cannot work. While long-term worklessness does exist and is a problem, it needs to be addressed with different and specific actions, rather than generalisations based on headline statistics.