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Minister needs to fact-check female unemployment story

In stories briefed to The Times and the Mail today, employment minister Chris Grayling claimed that large number of previously ‘stay at home mothers’ were deciding to look for work – leading to a big reduction in what’s called ‘economic inactivity’ among women. People are classified as economically inactive if they are neither in work, nor looking for work, such as if they are at home caring for children.

To back up this claim, Grayling highlighted figures showing a 71,000 drop in female economic inactivity over the last year. These also confirm that there has been an 85,000 rise in the number of women unemployed, so even if they are looking for work many are not finding it.

However, looking beneath the headline figures the story is not quite as the minister claims. The Office for National Statistics breaks down inactivity by age groups. This does show that inactivity among women aged 16–64 has fallen by 71,000. However, that’s not the whole story.

Inactivity among women aged 16–17 had dropped by 10,000 in the last year, but most won’t be parents. Looking at those aged between 18 and 49 – when most women have young children – economic inactivity has actually increased by 3,000 in the last year. By contrast, among older women, aged 50–64, inactivity has reduced by 63,000. Another way of putting this is that almost 90 per cent of the drop in female inactivity in the last year had been among women aged over 50. Not quite the story Chris Grayling was trying to tell.

So why might this actual shift have taken place? It is much more likely that women with young children are being put off a return to work – through a combination of cuts to tax credits and childcare support and the tough job market – with major negative long term consequences for them and the economy as a whole. By contrast many older women are releasing that they don’t have the pension provision they hoped for and so need to stay in employment – or at least look for work – for longer.

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