Unemployment is still too high – so why don't people care?

Unemployment of 7.8% ought to have people in the streets. Yet the only thing we hear is a collective sigh of indifference.

For more than three years, unemployment has been at levels we haven’t seen since the mid 1990s. However, as many commentators have noted, there is little evidence of public sympathy for those experiencing the consequences of stagnant labour demand. A poll for Prospect earlier this year found strong (although not majority) support for cutting benefits to the unemployed. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that while in 2001 88 per cent of respondents said the government was mainly responsible for ensuring the unemployed had enough to live on, only 59 per cent thought this in 2011. And the coalition’s strategy of presenting increases in welfare spending as a consequence of the previous government’s profligacy rather than the economic crisis seems to have found a receptive audience. 

In terms of public attitudes, unemployment seems to be unusual. How do we explain this? A common response is to look for explanations in underlying values or ideology: more individualism, less solidarity, a greater concern with personal responsibility, workers being duped by capitalist propaganda – take your pick. But there are some other reasons to expect unemployment to have a muted impact on public opinion, rooted in experience and expectations rather than values or ideology. 

The risk of becoming unemployed is low for most people in employment

If you are currently in employment, what is the risk that you will lose your job and become unemployed in the next three months? ONS publishes experimental statistics on movements between different labour market positions (employment, unemployment and economic inactivity). The latest data shows a risk of moving from employment to unemployment of 1.4 per cent per quarter – in other words, 98.6 per cent against becoming unemployed. The risk is non-negligible but prior to the recession, it was 1.2 per cent, so we’re talking about an increase of 0.2 per cent.  

This may seem surprising given that the unemployment rate is so much higher now, but it’s important to remember that the unemployment rate doesn’t measure the risk of becoming unemployed, and still less the risk of a currently employed worker becoming unemployed. It tells us what proportion of (economically active) people are unemployed at a point in time.

(As a thought experiment, imagine a situation where unemployment is high but nearly everyone who is unemployed has been out of work for more than a year: the risk of becoming unemployed in the near future would be very small, however high the unemployment rate was.)

Analysis by Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth (in The Labour market in winter, Oxford 2011) indicates that the risk of unemployment due to job loss is lower now than in the last two major recessions (although it’s worth bearing in mind that, even then, only a small minority of the employed were affected). The reduction in the risk compared to previous recessions may help explain apparently low current levels of public concern. People in employment may, rationally, see unemployment primarily as something that happens other people. This will tend to make their attitudes to the unemployed more dependent on their altruism than on any sense of being personally implicated. And it may leave people more open to the suggestion that unemployment is due to some personal failing rather than to slack labour demand.

Job loss is not the main cause of unemployment

It is natural to think of unemployment primarily in terms of people losing their jobs, but people also become unemployed because they have entered the labour market from some form of economic inactivity and failed to find work. Over recent years this has been no less important a source of flows into unemployment than job loss, and apart from the sharp peak in job losses at the onset of recession, it has been more important since 2008 (see chart). While flows from employment to unemployment are still high compared to pre-recession years, more people are becoming unemployed because they have failed to establish (or re-establish) a foothold in the labour market- primarily people leaving education, but also parents moving back into the labour market to supplement loss of earnings by partners and people affected by new benefit conditionality regimes.

 

Source ONS Labour Market Flows November 2012

With the partial exception of people affected by benefit conditionality, weak labour demand remains the explanation for the increase in all flows into unemployment, from all origins. But because the risk is falling somewhat less on existing workers than on those entering the labour market, employed workers may be less likely to relate unemployment  to their own experience. Again, the chances that employed people will see unemployment as a collective risk to which they are themselves exposed is reduced, not because of false consciousness or a shift in underlying values but simply because that is not the situation they face.

In earlier recessions job losses not only made a somewhat larger contribution to unemployment, many of the losses  were highly salient in public consciousness due to high-profile industrial restructuring affecting unionised workplaces – factories, docks, mines – reinforcing the sense of unemployment as a national issue of concern to everyone. That brings me to my final point. 

Unemployment is massively concentrated in certain types of occupation

The risk of unemployment is not evenly distributed over the workforce: generally, people in lower paid jobs experience more spells of unemployment even in the good times, and they are also more exposed to risks in the bad times, because they are more likely to be in sectors hit by falling demand and because employers are less likely to "hoard" their labour in the hope of an upturn than they are for higher-paid workers. The unemployment rates for different occupations give us a sense of the difference in risk exposure: former workers in elementary occupations have an unemployment rate of 12 per cent on the most recent data, compared to 3 per cent for those in managerial occupations.  

Another way of capturing the concentration of unemployment is by comparing different occupational groups’ shares of total employment and of unemployment, as in the table below. Dividing the share of unemployment by the share of employment gives us a simple measure of concentration – for managers and professionals, the share of unemployment is half of the share of employment, but for sales and customer services jobs, it is 1.6 times employment and for elementary occupations it is 2.3 times employment. The groups with disproportionately high unemployment are a sizeable minority of the workforce, 26 per cent: but that is still a minority and those with disproportionately low unemployment are a much larger group – 45 per cent (the three columns on the right and left hand sides of the table). 

As in previous recessions, manufacturing workers are among those bearing the brunt of low labour demand, with unemployment at 1.4 times their share of employment. But these workers form a much smaller share of the workforce, and of the general public, than in the 1980’s or early 1990’s. Unemployment increasingly takes the form of workers in low-paid and relatively precarious jobs not seeing their contracts renewed (if they have contracts at all), rather than finding their unionised factory is shutting down.

So if we want to understand why the public shows less sympathy for the unemployed than we might expect, there are some suggestive leads in the current and historical labour market data. If people are inclined to think of unemployment in terms of workers losing jobs , recent trends don’t fit the paradigm very well . The potent symbols of unemployment as a national issue – whole industries shedding labour, older workers losing jobs they had worked in since leaving school and communities losing their main source of employment at one fell swoop – are far from typical of current unemployment. And if personal interest plays any role in driving public concern – in other words, if people are not complete altruists – currently employed workers may quite rationally see unemployment as someone else’s problem. The overall effect of these changes may be to make unemployment a far more distant contingency than in the last two major employment downturns- and the distance is not just a matter of perception, but of objective risk.

If this attempt to explain public attitudes in terms of risks, expectations and public salience is right, there are positive and negative implications. The negative (for those on the left – reverse the sign if you’re on the right) is that the coalition may not need to worry too much about its remarkable record of stagnating  unemployment: enough of the public is far enough away from the risks to maintain the ugly fiction that unemployment is primarily a personal failure. On the positive side, the sort of deep-seated changes in public values or ideology – away from solidarity and equality, towards devil-take-the hindmost individualism – which worry so many on the left may be a misinterpretation of the evidence.  I’ve tried to suggest why people might react differently to a rise in unemployment without fundamental changes in values. The UK public may be no less nice or nasty, tough or tender than they were thirty years ago: they may just be, on balance, further away from the problem. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.