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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.