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Why am I economically inactive?

Today I was listening to Amol Rajan interview a man in his 60's that had been made redundant aged 57 in apparent disbelief that he was not economically active despite his experience. Like this man I was made redundant at 53, but unlike him did not desire to go back into full time work.

In the following I will explain what I wished to do, what in fact happened, and why I was able to and desired to choose this path.

Whilst working as an agricultural bank manager I had volunteered for a charity helping people in the rural community, Lincolnshire Rural Support Network for about 10 years and this was a lifeline for me in terms of activity and purpose. It is a fact that much of our identity can be invested in our employment.

As I was made redundant my wish was to get a mixture of paid and unpaid work. Even outside my charity work I had helped people and various rural businesses and hoped this could develop further. In the meantime I was offered some part time work on a farm and increased my formal charity work. My former employer equipped me well with courses and training to help me with the job market. However, it was to my surprise that much voluntary work had to be applied for in a very formal way and through employment agencies. However, I do understand this, especially when dealing with vulnerable people.

I applied for eight volunteer roles of between 8 and 16 hours per week. I deliberately went for roles slightly different to my rural experience, but that my considerable experience, knowledge and training both from work and LRSN. These roles included debt counselling, coaching young and start up businesses, crime and drug rehabilitation and helping asylum seekers. It has to be noted that whilst my current experience was in the rural environment, that was not my sole experience and I had dealt with a whole mixture of people both in and out of work in more urban environment.

I was not successful for any of these voluntary roles. However, I did approach some of the unsuccessful applications for feedback and by chatting to people got some interesting insight into what they were looking for. One common feature is that each of the charities preferred volunteers that were in employment. This was because they were deemed to have access to more resources and often volunteers in employment would over time attract funds from their employers. This in my experience is both understandable and true, but what full time employee has one or two days a week to spare? Whilst I respect the choices made by each of these, and indeed take a personal view you have to go where you are welcome, it was clear in some of those conversations that massive assumptions were made of me as an older white male and in two cases did correct those assumptions, indeed in one of those cases I was given the kindness of further contact in an open conversation where I explained the weakness of their recruitment process and feel my comments were taken on board. It was admitted to me in a roundabout way that if they were able they would stipulate specific ethnic background after I demonstrated to them my knowledge and ability to adapt to various religious and ethnic customs with appropriate respect. In three of the applications I kept in touch with the successful volunteers and two of them found the roles too demanding alongside their full-time jobs and left. The market for volunteers was skewed in favour of those in full-time employment in my experience. Having a "rural" tag to my professional and personal life carried assumptions about me I did not expect, and possibly, sadly shows a great divide between town and country that I could well imagine being reciprocal.

Fortunately for me I was able to increase my existing voluntary work, but I had hoped to diversify more. I also found more work helping people, mostly unpaid tapping into my experience and knowledge which I enjoyed. I did pick up some part time and casual paid work of different forms. Then covid came - this reduced my paid work drastically and increased my volunteering work, not just for LRSN but also outside helping deliver shopping and doing covid testing.

At the end of 2022 I moved from Lincolnshire to Northumberland where I changed tack. I did some part time work at a farm grading potatoes in early 2023 and enjoy writing ( as yet unpublished - but do this for my own pleasure). I also help some farmers informally at a distance with various issues they may have.

In the last eight years I have taken part in several Office of National Statistics surveys and this is where I first came across the idea that I am economically inactive. Whilst I have a low income (by choice) as I deliberately control my pension so as not to pay tax and draw on savings, I do not feel I am economically inactive. Even if unpaid, a great many people and businesses benefit from my activity, yet this is written off as economic activity. Other people may be in a similar position say where they help with childcare of grandchildren, voluntary work or formal charity work - this is not economic inactivity - its just less tangible than say Amol Rajan is as he hosts University Challenge. Yet the world is a little worse off without either of these!

The reason I chose this reduced activity is twofold:

First of all, financially I have made wise financial decisions, kept debt to a minimum, sacrifices and savings that meant when I was made redundant I could look at my net worth and realise I had enough funds to give me that freedom hopefully for the rest of my days.

Secondly, my experience of work is that it did not pay. Others assumed that I was well paid. The reality is that in my best year's income the ridiculous hours I had worked meant that in real terms my salary amounted to just over £7 an hour. The only plus side of my work is that the attached benefits to it were worth considerable more, and I estimate were worth about £6 and hour, but the ability to fully utilise lucrative savings schemes relied upon a combination of borrowing money and the family tax credit. As my children left school family tax credit disappeared. Long hours had taken their mental toll and to be frank were not rewarded to any extent, but the bizarre system did enable me to accrue pension savings as salary sacrifice also maximised family tax credits.

To be frank I look at paid work and think, "What's the point?" I draw a low income below my tax threshold from my pension that is currently growing at a considerably far greater rate than I am drawing it - my break even point where living expenses match outgoings is low and I am enjoying a lifestyle of my choice.

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