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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.