The flap has continued long after the recession ended, leading to delicious ironies like the publication by the New York Times of a special book, The Downsizing of America, just as the US unemployment rate headed sharply downwards. However, it is only now that a great deal of serious academic research on exactly which workers are insecure and why is starting to emerge.
The Conservative government was keen to stress that the insecurity was mainly in the mind, pointing to the decline in the number of redundancies since the recession ended, and the fact that average tenure in jobs had not fallen all that much since the mid-1970s. Although both points were true, it persuaded nobody. The reason is becoming clearer with every new study into the detail of the jobs market. It is that it is almost impossible to generalise about people's experience of work and unemployment; averages are pretty useless as a guide.
On the face of it, a new report published today by the Policy Studies Institute backs the old government's case. The research, commissioned some time ago by the Department for Education and Employment, shows that the types of "insecure" work on which we have tended to focus, part-time and temporary jobs, have increased but not all that much. Most extra flexibility has come from the use of overtime, and there is nothing particularly new and Nineties about that, even if overtime is being used far more extensively than in the past. The report comments: "In most workplaces the majority of the workforce is full-time on fixed hours."
Even though the widespread use of overtime means more and more of us feel thoroughly exploited, don't spend as much time with our family as we would like and suffer more stress, it does not amount to serious economic insecurity in the same way as only being able to work on a short-term contract. But rather than leap to the conclusion that the Tories were right to say insecurity is in the mind, the right conclusion is not that insecurity is unreal but that it is a minority phenomenon. Insecurity and economic exclusion are suffered by very specific groups.
The PSI's report is complemented by research currently under way at the LSE's Centre for Economic Performance by Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth. They have looked behind the figures for the typical length of time somebody is in a job. As the former social security minister Peter Lilley pointed out, typical job tenure has declined only a little.
This disguises several diverging trends. First, for any particular age group, jobs have become shorter in duration; but older people stay in jobs longer, and the workforce is ageing.
Secondly, mothers' job tenure has actually increased because of maternity rights. Women with children are taking advantage of the legislation that forces employers to hold their job open for them after maternity leave. This is closing the gender gap in typical job length, with women now staying in jobs virtually as long as men.
Men and women without children have seen a sharp decline in the length of the typical job. Controlling for age and sex, the number of jobs per working life has increased quite sharply. For example, a male aged 16- 19 would have held 1.38 jobs on average in 1975 but 3.07 in 1995; for women aged 35-39 there has been a much smaller proportionate increase from 6.29 to 9.04 over the same period.
Another piece of the jigsaw is the by now well-known fact that one in five households in the UK does not have anybody in work. This sounds terribly dramatic, but it consists of completely different groups: pensioner households, lone parent households and a minority with two or more adults without jobs.
The moral that is emerging from the detailed studies is that there are no big answers to the problem of insecurity and poverty; what is needed is a series of small, targeted solutions. In fact, it is now possible to pick out four groups of poor and marginalised people who are most in need of help from the new Government. They are: single pensioners; lone parents; the long-term unemployed, especially the young, and the minority of men who are in work but in insecure jobs.
Each group obviously needs different kinds of measures. The elderly who are poor and excluded are those subsisting on the basic state pension, just about keeping up with inflation. They will only get extra money if the Government decides on a means-tested increase in the pension.
There has been a lot of discussion about how to get single parents out to work, focusing on the disincentive effect of the over-rapid loss of benefits once somebody finds a job. This misses the point that the biggest work disincentive to this category is the cost of childcare. The only measure that makes any sense is paying for nursery and after-school care for their children.
The long-term unemployed are one of the Government's priority groups, although it has got itself hung up on the mantra of helping 250,000 young people. There are not this many of them who have been out of work for more than six months. The resources should be refocused on all the long- term unemployed to minimise the "deadweight loss", the fact that the state will end up subsidising many people who would have found a job anyway. The most cost-effective approach is helping people with their search for work by using job centres to match specific people with specific vacancies, but in any case what matters is getting unemployed people on to the first rung of the jobs ladder.
That leaves the hardest task, improving the lot of those who have bad, insecure jobs. The PSI research suggests that this is not as widespread as the headlines would have had us believe, but concludes that better information is needed. The LSE research points to young men as the most vulnerable. Here is where the Government needs to target its effort, but the solution is likely to be a matter of painstaking detail. Insecurity might not be the massive problem we once imagined, but even so there is no quick fix.
* Employers' Use of Flexible Labour, Bernard Casey, Hilary Metcalf and Neil Milward, Policy Studies Institute. 01202 715555, pounds 16.95Reuse content