There is no longer a "jobs puzzle": Britain's labour market improvement has stagnated

Unemployment has stalled – and other statistics are even worse.

A mesofact is a piece of knowledge which changes slowly. The term was coined by Samuel Arbesman, who describes it as lying somewhere between a fact which stays the same – like the height of Everest – and a fact which is constantly in flux – like the weather. The example Arbesman gives is of the population of the world; when I was a child, I learned it was 6 billion people. When my mother was a child, it was around half that. Yet it isn't a fact which changes fast enough that we bother rechecking every time we state it; and so the truth runs away from us.

It's a similar risk to the one I brought up in April, about the risks of imprecision. It may be easier to estimate things like the cost of welfare fraud to the economy as "small" or "large"; but if you present merely qualitative values, then the ability to continuously refine them if they change in small increments is lost. It's hard enough to keep track of the fact that the world's population increased by a billion in the last ten years; it would be that much harder to work out when it went from "large" to "very large".

I am reminded of this by yesterday's unemployment figures. It seems that there is a mesofact developing, which is that unemployment is falling quickly. It's been a puzzle in British economics for a while: there is job growth, but no economic growth. Why is that?

We've given various suggestions here, raging from productivity collapse to underemployment; and today, the BBC's Stephanie Flanders offers the possibility that it's due to falling wages.

But I worry that Britain's economic commentariat are struggling to explain a fact which just is no longer the case. Take a look at the unemployment rate since February 2008:

You can clearly see the steady decline which prompted the debate. Between Nov 2011 and Nov 2012, the unemployment rate fell nearly continuously, from 8.4 per cent to 7.7 per cent. Against the background of an economy which was stagnant, and sometimes actually contracting, that was a mystery.

But for the last six months, that fall has halted. Unemployment is actually sitting at 7.8 per cent in the latest release, for the three months to April, 0.1 per cent higher than its low. There is no mystery. Our economy is weak, and so is our labour market. Unemployment is stuck at over two per cent above its pre-crisis norm. That's a disaster.

There is one important statistic where the narrative of continued, slow, improvement does shine through; that's the vacancy rate, the number of people unemployed for every vacancy:

It stands at 4.9 people, the lowest since February 2009. That's good news; but talking about the vacancy rate exposes another flaw in government thinking. Whenever the rate is substantially higher than one, discussing unemployment as a personal failing is utterly nonsensical. If every job available was filled instantly, there would still be over 2 million people unemployed.

So why even bother with policies like the Work Programme, which aim to increase the employability of people without jobs? The vacancy rate shows that the most important thing to do is increase the supply of jobs, not increase the employability of unemployed people.

Speaking to Work Programme providers, they highlight a different aim of the scheme. Rather than targeting unemployment in general, the point of skills-based training is to get people in long-term unemployment back into work – even if that means they take a job which would otherwise have gone to someone who has been unemployed for a shorter length of time.

But that's where the worst news of all in yesterday's release comes in. Because since the government began its workfare blitz, the proportion of unemployed people out of work for over a year has gone up:

If you need a reminder of how scarring long-term unemployment is, just remember this paper from April:

The first thing employers look at is how long you've been out of work, and that's the only thing they look at if it's been six months or longer.

The labour market isn't getting better. And on the most important measure of all, it's getting much, much worse.

Stephen Hester, just the latest unemployed Briton. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.