What is ‘worklessness’?

question-mark‘Worklessness’ is a fairly new term that is starting to be used and heard more frequently but what does it mean? Is it just a different word for unemployment?

The answer is that worklessness is not the same as unemployment but there are several different definitions of worklessness.

In the national indicator set of 198 indicators for Local Authorities, the indicator on worklessness (NI 152) looks at the proportion of the working age population who are claiming an out-of-work benefit—either Jobseekers Allowance, Incapacity Benefits, Income Support for lone parents or other income related benefits.

Other groups have defined workless people as those who are out of work but would like to work.

The Office for National Statistics defines a ‘workless household’ as a household that contains at least one person of working age but where noone aged over 16 is in employment. All definitions agree that worklessness is wider than unemployment.

The Economic Inclusion Data Group decided to use a broad definition of worklessness – everyone who is not employed – in guiding the Observatory’s research on economic inclusion in the West Midlands.

This definition includes people who are unemployed and people who are economically inactive: people who are sick or disabled, students, people looking after the family and home, and retired people, for example.

This definition of worklessness can be calculated as the opposite of the employment rate. This means that people who are claiming out-of-work benefits, as well as people who are out of work but are ineligible to claim benefits, are included.

Using this definition reveals that across the West Midlands there are 900,000 people of working age who are workless, over a quarter of the working age population.

‘Worklessness’ is about much more than unemployment; there are far greater numbers of people who are workless than unemployed. To be defined as unemployed, people need to be actively looking for work and available to start work, but there are many more people who are out of work yet do not fall into the narrow category of being ‘unemployed’.

For example, people who are caring for children or family members would be included in the wider definition of worklessness but would not be included in the unemployment figures even if they are looking for work. They may want to find employment, but because they have caring responsibilities and are therefore not available to start work, they would not be defined as unemployed.

One of the most common reasons for worklessness in the West Midlands is sickness and disability. This group makes up 22% of the total number of workless people. Some of these people may be claiming Incapacity Benefits but some will not.

Looking at worklessness rather than unemployment means that this important and large group of people are included in the research.

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