National living wage explained & updated rates for 2024

Workers aged 21 and over now qualify for the National Living Wage. But what does that mean for businesses, and how is it different from the National Minimum Wage?

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Written and reviewed by:
Helena Young

Budgeting for paying employees in a small business can be confusing; especially when pay keeps shifting. The National Living Wage (NLW) increase just threw another curveball – from April 2024, the new amount will now apply to all employees aged 21 and over.

Hold on, isn’t that what the National Minimum Wage (NMW) is for? You’re not wrong to be confused. Both are government-set minimum hourly wages, but the living wage was specially designed to apply to older staff, while the minimum wage has tiered rates for younger workers.

This guide will break down the key differences between the NLW and the NMW. We’ll explore why the NLW was introduced in the first place, and even delve into the Real Living Wage (RLW), a higher voluntary standard some companies choose to adopt.

National Living Wage rates for 2024

All minimum wage rates, including the National Living Wage, are set by the Department for Business each year on the advice of independent advisory group, the Low Pay Commission.

From 1 April 2024:

  • Workers aged 21 and over will be paid the National Living Wage
  • Workers aged 16 and over will be paid the National Minimum Wage
  • Apprentices under 19 or in the first year of training will be paid the apprentice wage

New rates for National Living Wage

National Living Wage
April 2023 (23 and over)£10.42 p/h
April 2024 (21 and over)£11.44 p/h

New rates for National Minimum Wage

Age18 to 2016 to 18Apprentice
Hourly wage£8.60 p/h£6.40 p/h£6.40 p/h

National Living Wage: legal requirements

Employers are legally required to pay a minimum wage to all workers, regardless of their employment status. That includes agency staff, as well as those who are enrolled on zero-hours or part-time work contracts. Only sole traders and volunteers do not qualify.

Failure to comply with the new National Living Wage and National Minimum Wage could result in a £20,000 fine for the business owner.

Companies must check with a payroll service expert that staff salaries, bonuses, and commissions are updated and in-line with the latest legislation.

Why was the National Living Wage introduced?

The National Living Wage was first introduced in the UK in April 2016 by David Cameron. At the time, it applied to ‘experienced’ workers aged 25 and over, and was intended to improve their standard of living at a faster pace than the National Minimum Wage.

While the NMW typically increases at a steady rate each April, Cameron pledged that living wage growth would be purposely accelerated to reach 60% of median UK earnings by 2020.

Unfortunately, the government fell short of that goal. Three years (and four prime ministers) later, annual basic wages have risen by a record amount, leaving the NLW to pale in comparison. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt declared in last year’s Autumn budget that he would raise the NLW by 9.8% to finally close the gap and fulfil the Conservative’s 2016 pledge.

Hunt also decided to open up the National Living Wage to workers aged 21 and over, in answer to a recommendation the LPC first made in 2019.

The change is most likely to impact small businesses. According to a government report, most large employers already treated the NLW as a wage floor for over 21s. SME-heavy sectors, like hospitality, hair and beauty, were more likely to use the 21-22 year-old rate (which no longer exists), so will be more notably impacted by the April 2024 changes.

What is the Real Living Wage?

The National Living Wage and National Minimum Wage are the base salaries that a company must legally pay its staff. But, campaigners argue that the current rates are still low, which is why some companies have elected to pay staff a more generous Real Living Wage (RLW).

While the NLW is tied to average annual salaries, the Real Living Wage is determined by the Living Wage Foundation and is based on cost of living. Consequently, it is a more accurate reflection of the amount of money a person has to earn to cover basic living expenses today.

Rates are updated each October and they are currently set at £12 per hour. So far, 14,000 UK businesses have signed up to become an accredited RLW employer.

London Living Wage

The Real Living Wage for Londoners (also known as just the London Living Wage) is set at a higher rate of £13.15 per hour. This is to accommodate London’s higher cost of living for basics like housing, food, and transportation.

SMEs based in the capital, or chains who have opened a location inside the M25, should consider following in the footsteps of large employers like Asda and Tesco to raise salaries specifically for workers in this area.

Should I pay the Real Living Wage?

In a competitive market, a good salary is essential for attracting and retaining staff. Working for a Real Living Wage employer is a particular selling point for job seekers as it promises a stable salary with regular pay reviews; one of the most sought-after employee benefits.

There is also growing evidence that paying the Real Living Wage can be good for a company’s bottom line. Studies have shown that companies that pay the RLW have lower staff turnover, as workers feel more motivated to stay in the role and enjoy its pay perks.

In a survey of 546 UK businesses, conducted at the end of last year, Startups uncovered that 82% of companies plan to raise employee wages in the next 12 months.

As pay wins dominate the news headlines, organisations should be prepared for employees asking for a pay rise this year to bring their salaries in line with wage inflation.

Considerations for adopting the Real Living Wage

Becoming a Real Living Wage accredited employer is about more than just bragging rights. It’s an important value proposition for prospective employees, telling them that you care about their financial wellbeing and are willing to go the extra mile to support them.

The investment will backfire if this support is then pulled down the line. Brewdog found that out earlier this year when it relinquished its Real Living Wage status, citing the hospitality pay crisis that has left 19% of firms unable to meet employee wage expectations this year.

The move proved to be a real beer spill for the Scottish brewer. Critics said it showed hypocrisy on Brewdog’s part and a lack of empathy for its low-earning workforce.

This is why commitment to the Real Living Wage is not to be taken lightly. Employees on the RLW will earn approximately £1,092 a year more than a worker on the NLW (and £3,334 more than a worker on the London Living Wage). This is a great bonus for employees, but it’s also a significant cost burden for employers.

Crunching the numbers is key. Curious business owners should first complete a cash flow forecast to test how adopting the Real Living Wage might impact budgets long-term.

Keen to learn more about implementing pay rises? Visit our guide to conducting pay reviews at your business.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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