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Working miracles

Employment by age and gender

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The story of rising rates of paid employment among women during the 20th century is a well-known one.

Historically, marriage was the critical factor in determining whether a woman worked or not. In 1911 the employment rate for single and widowed women aged 25-44 was 70%, not very different from the rate among women of that age today. But among married women in the same age group, it was just 10%.

There was little trend towards married women entering paid employment until WWII, when conscription resulted by mid-1943 in 80% of them being employed in work related to the war effort.

Although many were dismissed after the war's end, the subsequent decades were characterised by unusually high demand for labour and worker shortages, meaning employment among married women again began to grow. A 1965 government survey noted that “it has been apparent for some years that the only major source of potential recruits to the labour force... consists of married women”. By 1971, the rate of employment among married women was close to 40%, up from less than 10% in 1931.

As the rate of women's employment has risen, the rate for men, though it still remains higher, has gone into decline. In 1921, 90% of all men were in paid employment; today, the figure is just 69%. Partly, this is because of the declining labour market participation of young people, who spend longer in education, and older people, who spend longer in retirement (such trends are also in evidence for women). But even among men aged 25-44, employment rates fell from over 97% until 1981, to 91% by 2001.

The trend in participation among older men is particularly striking. In the early 20th century, if a man was lucky enough to live to today's retirement age, he could expect to still be in work (participation among men over 65 was 62% in 1901). Indeed, he may well have been glad of the fact. Withdrawal from the labour force at this time was rarely a matter of choice, even among the elderly, because most households did not have the savings required to sustain a protracted retirement.

The difficulty older people faced in keeping their jobs led reformers, Charles Booth and Joseph Chamberlain among them, to campaign for publicly provided old-age pensions. But the rate at which these were introduced in 1908 – just 5 shillings per week for the over 70s, well below the poverty lines of the time – hardly made retirement an attractive prospect, and as late as 1921, employment among older men remained close to 60%. With the state pension age set to increase, and long life expectancies raising the cost of retirement, the trend away from old-age working looks set to be reversed.

Job for life
The chart shows employment rates among men and women of all ages (yellow line), and among younger and older sub-groups (pink lines) at ten-year intervals since 1921 (excluding 1941).
The chart shows employment rates among men and women of all ages, and among younger and older sub-groups at ten-year intervals since 1921 (excluding 1941)

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