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
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.