UK unemployment will get worse before it gets better

Without targeted action, the UK will suffer.

People queue outside a jobcentre at the height of the recession. Credit: Getty

Everyone knows it is tough to get a job right now. But it’s going to get worse, before it gets better. That’s the judgement of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Their latest forecast, published by George Osborne alongside the Budget, shows that unemployment will peak at 8.7 per cent and it will not fall until quarter three 2013, next September at the earliest.

The UK’s unemployment rate (8.4 per cent) is the worst for 17 years, since 1995. But the OBR’s forecast suggests that another hundred thousand more people in Britain will be without a job before the end of the summer. IPPR analysis – based on the pattern of the increase in 2011 – shows that 50,000 more men and more 50,000 women will become unemployed this year, with 100,000 public sector jobs lost and the 200,000 new jobs created in the private sector being matched by the increase in the number of people looking for work in the UK.

Young people will continue to bear the brunt of unemployment, with an extra 41,000 young people aged under 25 joining those already unemployed breaking a new record, since records began in 1992. At the other end of the age scale, an extra 7,000 people aged over 50 will become unemployed, who will find it very tough to find work again.

Overall, unemployment will not "peak" until at least September and if unemployment rises again this month, as the OBR predicts, it will be the tenth month in a row. In America, unemployment is falling and the economy growing. Last year, the US economy grew by 1.7 per cent versus 0.8 per cent in Britain. US employment grew 1.2 per cent while Britain lagged at 0.7 per cent. And US growth appears to be accelerating: it was 0.7 per cent in the final quarter of 2011 compared with a decline of 0.2 per cent for Britain.

An important reason why America is stronger is that President Obama has maintained his commitment to fiscal stimulus while the UK has focused on austerity. The biggest danger in the UK is not Greek-style default but Japanese-style stagnation. But even if the government won’t change its fiscal stance, there is something to learn from America.

The primary tool for US stimulus has been a payroll tax cut introduced in 2010 and recently extended with cross-party support through 2012. The cut reduced the rate of an employee’s contribution to social security from 6.2 to 4.2 per cent, putting $1,000 per year into families’ pockets. This has injected $92 billion a year of stimulus into the economy and US consumer spending increased by 2.2 per cent last year while it shrank by 0.8 per cent in Britain. One might think this extra spending was at the expense of debt reduction, but the reverse is true — US households have reduced debts by 11 per cent since the bubble burst as against only 5 per cent for Britain.

This combination of increasing consumption and reducing debt is the key to recovery. Businesses in Britain and around the world are sitting on record piles of cash: $2 trillion globally. But they won’t invest that cash and create jobs until they see the demand for their products and services rising. And squeezed consumers won’t create that demand until they have confidence they can spend a bit more and manage their debts.

This has been the longest recession and the slowest recovery that Britain has ever experienced. The personal tragedy of the slow economic recovery is the way unemployment will continue to rise, even once the economy begins to grow. The risk is that high unemployment becomes a permanent feature of the UK economy, as it did in the 1980s. Even within the context of the Government’s deficit reduction plan, it is short-sighted of the not to do more to get people back into jobs.