Why demonising people as ‘workless’ won’t solve rising economic inactivity

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James Morrison, University of Stirling

As the gloves come off for election year, Britain’s would-be leaders are circling a new political punch-bag: people who are “economically inactive”.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this term denotes those who are not currently in employment, who have not sought employment within the last four weeks and who are unable to start work within the next two weeks. Between November 2023 and January 2024, 9.25 million 16 to 64-year-olds were inactive. This is equivalent to 21.8% of all working-age adults.

The renewed political focus is the latest incarnation of what sociologists since the 1970s have called “scroungerphobia”. My research shows that myths around people who aren’t working have long been promoted by mainstream UK politicians and right-wing news media.

What the data actually shows, however, is that swathes of people are facing serious and complex life challenges. The rise in economic inactivity is being driven by mental ill-health and burnout, growing NHS waiting lists and Britain’s increasing reliance on unpaid carers. Many of those affected face deepening poverty after years of cuts to out-of-work benefits.

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