How can you have growing employment and a shrinking economy?

Underemployment: the UK’s response to economic weakness

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" than 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.

A worker is underemployed in the HK stock exchange. Photograph: Getty Images

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”