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 adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era