Young people’s wages: the numbers look scary… because they are scary

The squeeze on young people's pay is only going to get worse.

The economic plight of young people has been one of the recurring themes of recent years – most importantly the rise of youth unemployment which has topped one million and the steep rise of long-term youth unemployment. Yet for all the debate about the labour market position of young people, very little attention has been given to their wages.

If we look back over the last decade what we see appears rather scary. It’s very widely known that typical real wages have been falling post-crisis, and that they stagnated for some years prior to the recession across the wider working population.

But those aged 16-29 didn’t just experience stagnation – they saw a significant fall in wages, which has carried on since 2008: typical pay fell for this group by 6.4 per cent from 2003-2010, or 8.6 per cent for men. And if we add to this the typical wage squeeze that occurred across the working population in the annus horribilis of 2011 this suggests a wage fall of over 10 per cent for young people during 2003-2011. And it will get worse yet.

Source: Resolution Foundation analysis of ASHE

It’s not immediately obvious what is happening here and different accounts are possible.

One view would be that this isn’t really a story about what is happening to the wages of the British born workers, it’s just a description of the greater migration that occurred in this period. According to this argument the composition of young workers in Britain has changed and so, therefore, have wages: as young foreign workers tend to be concentrated in low-paying sectors, so typical wages have fallen. 

I haven’t seen a definitive study specifically on the impact of migration on the wages of young workers, so it’s important to tread carefully. But I’d be very surprised if this change in the composition of young workers didn’t account for any element of these findings, just as I’d also be surprised if it accounted for all of it. The ONS has looked at the wages of British born and non-British born young workers during the years running up to the crisis. Looking at the 18-24 group, to the extent that there is a discernible pattern it is that the wages of the non-British born group were higher than their British born counterparts up until 2004. They then they fell behind in 2005 and 2006, before the situation was reversed again in 2007 and 2008.  At first glance it doesn’t look decisive.

Another account might be that the chart above is really just capturing a growth in part-time working (with lower wage rates) among young people which is dragging down median wages. Again, there is likely to be an element of this occurring but it can’t be the only factor. If we just look at what is happening to full time median wages we see they also fall through this period– though a smaller amount than for all employees.

Alternatively, and for me more plausibly, it could be that these numbers look scary because they are, actually, genuinely scary. For many economists the performance of young people in the jobs market is a barometer – or an early warning signal – of the health of the wider economy.

Even though the overall UK economy kept growing from 2004-2008 it is noteworthy that sectors where young people tend to work were struggling during this period (a point emphasised by the recent David Miliband-led ACEVO commission). The recession may have hit the young before the rest of us. Wholesale, retail, hotels and restaurants are by far the largest employers of young people. They saw an increase of around 300,000 jobs between 2001 and 2004 before employment plummeted by around 200,000 between 2004 and 2007. Falling demand in key sectors may well have put downward pressure on young people’s wages as well as on employment levels. On top of this, it’s also likely to have eroded opportunities for career progression – with fewer ladders and more snakes – making it harder to get a promotion or an upward move to a new job (which may well affect earnings mobility over the longer term).

And we should bear in mind the importance of the national minimum wage (NMW) in this debate. Dramatically more young people are paid at or near the NMW than is the case for the rest of the workforce, so changes in its level have a larger knock on effect on the wages of this age group. Following steep increases from 1999-2003 the minimum wage then levelled off in real terms from around 2004 (the same is true for the young person’s rate). So a weakening in NMW policy over time may be part of the explanation. 

Young people in the UK are not the only ones suffering persistent falls in wages. The Economic Policy Institute in the US have analysed the far starker trend in young people’s wages there (though they don’t consider migration effects). Looking specifically at the entry level wages of 19-25 year olds for both high school and college graduates the EPI show that rising wages for young people have been the exception rather than the norm over recent decades. Male high school graduates saw a 25 per cent fall in hourly wages between 1979 and 2011; even male college graduates only secured a five per cent rise over this whole period (women performed significantly better, though starting from lower wage levels).

In the UK youth unemployment is - or at least should be - public enemy number one. It dominates all else. But when steady growth eventually returns it is essential that we have a jobs market that sees wage gains reach all age groups. After the long fall, the young need a pay rise more than any. 


Jobseekers queue outside a Jobcentre. Photograph: Getty Images

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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.