Underemployment: the UK’s response to economic weakness

Why is the UK suffering an underemployment crisis?

Despite the UK economy being in recession in the first quarter of 2012, unemployment fell by 45,000 (and youth unemployment was down by 18,000). This is very welcome news. Throughout the last four years of recession, hesitant recovery and return to recession the UK’s labour market has performed remarkably well. The fact that 2.63 million people are unemployed is terrible news, but, if the pattern of previous recessions had held, that number could have been closer to 3.5 million. It’s bad, but it could have been a lot worse.

Companies and workers have found two alternatives to mass redundancies: cuts in real pay and increased part-time working.

Pay has failed to keep pace with prices for much of the last four years and the latest figures show regular earnings (excluding bonuses) increased by just 1.6 per cent over the last year, compared to consumer price inflation of 3.5 per cent.

Meanwhile, the 105,000 increase in employment in the latest quarter was more than fully accounted for by part-time workers, while the number in full-time employment fell by 13,000. Looking at the numbers differently, 90,000 of the 105,000 increase in employment in the last quarter was due to an increase in self-employment.

These are not new trends; they have been evident throughout the recession and recovery. The following table shows the change in employment over the last four years (i.e. comparing the first quarter of 2008, just before the recession, with the first quarter of 2012).

 

 

Change in employment (000s)

Total employment

-277

 

 

Employees

-544

Self-employed

307

Unpaid and on government programmes

-40

 

 

Employment – full-time

-744

Employment – part-time

467

 

 

Employees – full-time

-792

Employees – part-time

248

 

 

Self-employed – full-time

44

Self-employed – part-time

263

 

In round numbers, over this period total employment in the UK has fallen by close to 300,000. But the number of full-time employees is down by 800,000, while the number of part-time employees and the number of part-time self-employed people are both up by about 250,000.

We know there are many reluctant part-time workers because the Office for National Statistics asks those who are working part-time if they would prefer to be working full-time and 1,418,000 are currently saying "yes" – the highest number since comparable records began in 1992 and an increase of 700,000 over the last four years. Unfortunately, the ONS does not ask the self-employed if they would rather be working as an employee – but it is a fair bet that some of the recent increase in self-employment reflects people who would rather not be self-employed but have set up their own businesses because they cannot find a company to employ them.

The headline unemployment figures do not tell the full story of the UK labour market during the recession and recovery. As well as a large increase in unemployment, there has been a large increase in underemployment – people working fewer hours than they would like.

This represents lost potential output to the UK economy, as well as lost income and lower living standards for those who find themselves underemployed, but it is far better for the economy in the long-run for people remain in work than for them to lose their jobs. Once people are out of work, there is a risk they lose touch with the labour market and find it impossible ever to get back into employment (as happened to thousands in the 1980s).

It is not clear, however, why underemployment is replacing unemployment as the response to economic weakness. There is no evidence of a renaissance in industrial relations at the whole economy level, but it seems that in many companies employers and workers are getting together to agree that more part-time working and cuts in real pay are preferable to lay-offs. You could say that some workers have decided that they are better off "all in it together" then seeing some of their number lose their jobs.

There is, however, one sense in which the increase in involuntary working is bad news, and that is for the outlook for employment once the economy does start to grow at a healthy pace. When this happens, before they start to recruit new workers, companies will want to bring back into use the underutilised resources represented by underemployment. Meanwhile, workers who are working part-time involuntarily will want to return to full-time employment before they see new colleagues alongside them. There is a limit to the ‘all in it together’ sentiment, which means it is not likely to extend to those unfortunate enough to be unemployed.

At a macro level, the result is likely to be something of a "jobless" recovery. Stronger output growth, when it eventually arrives, accompanied by modest increases in employment – and stubbornly high unemployment – while part-time working falls and full-time working increases.

Rita Manso, 26, part-time worker and student, serves cocktails. Part-time work in bars, shops and clerical positions has risen in the "jobless recovery". Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Labour must unite idealists and nativists to beat Ukip

The party has no coherent economic policy, says Labour donor John Mills. 

The heart of the dilemma faced by Labour is that, by and large, its working-class supporters think that you should look after your own first and everyone else afterwards, while its more idealistic middle-class supporters don’t share these nativist views. Add to this the fact that the Labour party nowadays is more middle class, more internationalist, more public sector-orientated, more metropolitan, more intellectual and less interested in winning elections than it has ever been before, and you can see why Ukip is a huge potential threat.

Ukip started by attracting mainly disaffected Conservative voters who thought their party was weak on the EU and who didn’t like David Cameron’s liberal approach to social issues. More recently, especially during the EU referendum, Ukip picked up a huge amount of Labour support. Of the 9.3m people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election, close to 3.5m of them voted for Leave – and half of these people say they are not going to vote Labour in future. Where are they going to go?

The crucial issue is whether Ukip, having gone through all its recent traumas, will get its act together to scoop up these footloose voters. Up to now, the glue which has held Ukip together has been hostility to the EU and distrust of the political establishment. It has lacked coherent policy. This leaves Ukip still essentially a protest operation rather than as a potentially governing party. But this could change. 

With Labour now increasingly idealistic rather than nativist, Ukip may pull together a string of policies that promise support for working-class solidarity, immigration restrictions, social conservatism and a reindustrialisation plan – very much the platform which won Donald Trump the US presidency. Such a manifesto could attract sufficiently widespread working-class support to make large numbers of Labour seats vulnerable. Ukip came second in 120 constituencies during the 2015 general election. There doesn’t have to be a very large swing for Ukip to start picking up enough seats to make the prospect of a future Labour government more and more remote.

Faced with this prospect, what can Labour do? Three key strategies suggest themselves. One is to avoid alienating potential Labour supporters by trying to persuade them that they should have voted Remain. On the contrary, the party must clearly accept the referendum result, and fight hard and constructively towards getting the best possible Brexit deal. 

Second, Ukip is weak on economic policy. It is all very well to promise reindustrialisation and better jobs, but how is Ukip going to fulfil them? Populism shades very easily into protectionism. There is a principled case for open markets to produce more prosperity - but this may only be possible if there are also changes to monetary and exchange rate policy to avoid unmanageable commercial competition. Ukip may, like the Labour party, find this a hard case to make.

Third, Labour needs to change its tone. There needs to be less talk of abstract universal values and more of concrete steps to improve people’s lives. Labour must celebrate working-class attitudes to self-help, trade unionism, mutual support, patriotism and solidarity. The party must build on the huge influx of members, not least because they are the cadres for the future, but it also must avoid alienating old supporters with many years of experience and commitment. It is up to the party leadership to create such a change.

As it stands, too many Labour people are still trying to derail Brexit. The party has no coherent economic policy and it still looks too London-centric, divorced from its working-class roots. Not a good place to be if Ukip pulls itself together. 

John Mills is a businessman and a Labour donor. He founded the group Labour Leave ahead of the EU referendum and has recently published the pamphlet "Why Trump Won"