We're working more, but doing less: why GDP is so low

Productivity is down year-on-year for the fourth quarter in a row.

Why has GDP been stagnating even while employment and hours worked have been rising? One answer to the question is to point out that the rise in the employment rate has been somewhat overstated; There was a persistent rise for around a year, but that seems to have levelled off in recent months. Furthermore, at a period when the economy was growing, the employment rate was actually flat. It could just be catch-up growth in employment that we are seeing.

But even with those explanations, there's still something to explain. The employment rate has flatlined, but overall employment has continued to grow (although even that dropped off in the first quarter of 2013):

 

Overall employment is a bad measure to use to judge the success of a government, because it has a tendency to rise anyway, thanks to population growth. (Which is why, unsurprisingly, this government is fond of quoting it. "More people in work than ever before" is technically true, but only because there are more people in Britain than ever before.) But it is important for one reason: more people ought to mean more people making things, which ought to mean higher GDP. The fact that it doesn't is worrying.

That's why economists turn to measures of labour productivity, which tell us things like how much output the average worker produces, or how much output is produced per hour. If the country is getting richer, but only because we are working longer hours, for instance, the former measure will rise, but the latter won't. If the country is getting richer, but only because more people are working, then the latter will rise, but the former won't.

We are in the opposite situation. The country isn't getting richer, but more people are working, and they're working longer. And so, as you'd expect, that means both key measures of productivity, released today, are falling:

The ONS adds:

Whole economy output has risen slowly during 2012, while employment and hours rose at a much faster rate. Labour productivity has therefore fallen over the past year on all measures - although it rose in the first quarter of 2013 on an output per worker and output per job basis as employment stagnated while output increased. The weakness in productivity has not been translated into rising unit labour costs, which have fallen over the past year because of the weakness of earnings growth.

As I said yesterday, though, falling labour productivity doesn't solve the puzzle. It just raises a different question: why?

It could be that the slump is to do with the Government's attempt to rebalance the economy from the public to the private sector. If you lay off a lot of talented people in high-productivity jobs and force them to work in a sector which caters to a slightly different set of skills, they may well end up being less productive, especially for the time it takes them to learn how to do their new job.

Alternatively, it may be that employers didn't lay off every employee they could have, instead choosing to keep them on in the hope that, when the depression is over, they won't have to rehire. In that explanation, the drop in productivity is because there isn't enough work to keep all the workers busy. That's the preferred explanation of the Economist's Free Exchange blog, but it doesn't explain why the number of hours worked have risen at the same time.

We have a weak economy. Hopefully it won't stay that way for too much longer.

Working hard or hardly working? A participant in the Chap Olympics competes in a round of Not Playing Tennis, the aim of which is to make the least possible effort to play tennis. 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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.