Why Britain's households got richer - and why they stopped

There are no signs of living standards for families getting any better. Brace yourself.

Before there is any prospect of shaking the economic pessimism that has engulfed the country we need first to alight upon a credible account of how working families will boost their living standards in the years ahead.

At the moment no-one is mapping out this course to a more prosperous future; but more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that we don't really know how it is that households got richer over the recent past. Even though recent history is unlikely to offer a clear guide to the future, it is instructive to understand why low-to-middle income households got richer over the last generation and more -- why it stopped.

Clearly, we do know what happened to headline economic growth over the last forty years, and that this resulted in an unparalleled rising tide of living standards, such that the average British household is twice as prosperous compared to 40 years ago. But we haven't, until now, been able to break down the sources of this rising tide of prosperity at the level of individual households, and tease out how they have changed over time -- for instance, between higher wages (for men and women), more people working, more hours worked, and more generous benefits and tax credits.

Now a landmark report by the IFS for the Resolution Foundation's Commission on Living Standards sets this out in forensic detail. It is a unique compendium of facts and figures about living standards -- and behind the statistics is the tale of economic and social change in late 20th and early 21st century: the rise of women, the relative decline of men and the emergence of tax-credits in low-to-middle income Britain. Any politician or pundit wishing to put the current squeeze on living standards into some meaningful context needs to put it on their Christmas reading-list.

A few findings leap out. Firstly, over the last forty years the great majority (over three quarters) of all the income growth arising from work in low to middle income households came from women. Indeed, women's contribution to total household income more than doubled from just 11 per cent in 1968 to 24 per cent in 2008. Much of this growth is accounted for by higher wages but a large share also comes from big increases in female employment.

Sources of household income growth 1968- 2008/09 - low to middle income households

graph

Over the same period the model of the male breadwinner has taken something of a battering. The contribution of men's work to this same group of households plummeted from 71 per cent of total income to just 40 per cent. As shown in the chart above, this means that income from men's work accounts for only 8 per cent of all the growth in household income in this period, compared to 27 per cent for women. It is well known that male employment plummeted during the 1980s, but male wage growth has also been massively lower for this part of the population -- with any gains here nearly wiped out by falls in employment levels.

Secondly, if we look at the pre-crisis period of economic growth, from 2002 to 2008, a period characterised by steady growth, the evidence is even more striking. Women's employment served to raise household incomes, as did fast-rising tax credits (by an even larger amount); but these gains were almost completely wiped out by losses from male employment income. The net result? The chart below shows that average household income for this group barely rose at all: it went up by a grand total of £143 over 6 years.

Change in income for low to middle income households, 2002/03 - 2008/09, in 2008/09 £s

graph

As with many reports, the conclusions you draw from it will to some degree reflect your starting point. Those favouring redistribution will, of course, point to the enormous importance of tax credits in helping lift family living standards, and be alarmed by the coalition's clear agenda of cutting them back. Whilst those instinctively opposed to using the tax-and-benefit system to mitigate market inequalities will take this report as proof-positive that some of the improvements in the Blair-Brown years were the product of unsustainable state spending.

But wherever you start from, several things jump out of this report as being particularly pressing to the current political debate. Most obviously we clearly have a gender problem -- in fact we have two. Given that income from female work is now so critical for families on low to middle incomes, and typical wages have been flat-lining over recent years, it is a uniquely dumb moment to reduce childcare support which has enabled so many women in low-to-middle income households to combine work and family life. Indeed, declining support for childcare, combined with falling public sector employment (which will affect women more), means that in the short-term female employment rates are likely to fall. Yet we also need to start talking about men. We all know that the UK suffered a strong decline in male employment in the 1980s, but what is less well appreciated is that male employment within the low to middle income group was still falling between 2002 and 2008. We rapidly need to halt this decline.

And -- perhaps this barely needs saying following yesterday's OECD report -- we are going to carry on having an inequality problem too -- indeed it will get worse. This is less a prediction, more a matter of arithmetic. Imagine for a moment that we find ourselves transported into an unlikely egalitarian future, in which pay increases (in per cent) at the top are exactly the same as those at the bottom (bear with me), well, even in this unlikely world, income inequality between households will rise. This is because households further down the income scale receive a significantly smaller portion of their budget from wages than the average household does -- never mind the most affluent. Consequently a given wage increase has a smaller impact on their overall income than it does for those further up the scale.

The only way this dynamic towards ever more polarised household incomes will be countered is either by more aggressively redistributive tax and benefit policies, or a disproportionately large rise in employment levels among this part of the population. And currently we're heading in the wrong direction on both these fronts. Brace yourself.

Gavin Kelly is a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war