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.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR