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








Unpaid and on government programmes




Employment – full-time


Employment – part-time




Employees – full-time


Employees – part-time




Self-employed – full-time


Self-employed – part-time



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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.