In the past, full employment meant full-time, lifetime employment for men. Today nearly half the workforce are women, and one in four of those women work part-time. Term-time jobs, contracts that stipulate only the number of hours to be worked annually, and individual working hours are all subverting the standard working week.
Despite the impression of a contracting labour market, there are actually almost a million more people employed today than nine years ago. Most of the new jobs, however, are part- time, and have been filled by women - usually those not previously registered as unemployed. Most of those officially unemployed, however, are men, seeking full-time jobs.
This cannot be allowed to continue, if only because we cannot afford it to. Neither the unemployed nor the taxpayer, neither families nor communities, can bear the weight placed on us all by 3 million unemployed.
Most industrialised societies are driving towards a new flexible economy, which includes a trend towards shorter working hours. At the same time, however, enterprises need to operate for longer to meet customers' changing requirements.
The most efficient way to staff the hospitals, supermarkets, garages and other services that open more or less round-the- clock is not to increase working hours but to combine different working patterns. One German store offers shop assistants a monthly choice of hours; in Britain, B & Q operates 34 different rotas in just one store.
This change is affecting not only the service sector. In 1988, Michelin tyres agreed to cut many shiftworkers' hours to an average of 31 1/2 a week. More recently, more than half a million engineering workers won a 4 1/2-day week. Longer operating hours for expensive plant can pay for higher wages even while employees' hours are cut.
In the traditional definition of employment, part-time work is regarded as hidden unemployment. But despite lower pay and worse conditions, part-time workers are generally happier than full-timers with their jobs and their leisure. Of course, women may prefer part-time work if there is no full-time childcare available; but surveys show that most employed mothers would prefer more free time to look after their children themselves.
The problem today is that there is not enough part-time work. There are more full-time employees, particularly in their fifties, who want to cut their hours, than part-timers wanting to increase theirs. If unemployed people who want full-time employment can get only part-time jobs, then they are indeed part-unemployed. But people who want to work only part of the week or part of the year can be described as fully employed when they get jobs to suit. A new definition of full employment should therefore embrace willing part-time employment; and the definition of unemployment has to embrace part-time unemployment.
At present, the social security system and employment law assume a standard, full-time working week. This means that, although the Government has now recognised the reality of part- time employment and encourages lone mothers, in particular, to take it, a bizarre set of disincentives is locking many claimants out of employment altogether.
Reforming social security will not create new jobs. But it will make it easier for people on benefit to take those jobs that are created. There would have to be a new part-time unemployment benefit available both to the willing part-time worker who cannot find a part- time job, and to the full-time worker who can only find a part- time job. Because a few part-time jobs pay very high wages, benefit would have to be withdrawn at a certain point; but the system would allow a higher income from part-benefit and part-earnings than from benefit alone.
Cuts in hours for full-time workers may help to maintain the number of jobs available, but enhanced productivity resulting from high technology is inexorably reducing the demand for labour.
We all need to recognise that we now have a chance to make new trade-offs between time and money. Where the demand for staff is constant or expanding, full-timers who need the time more than they need the money will, by cutting their hours, create new jobs.
Voluntary cuts in hours and income appal those for whom full- time work is the only real work. For some, however, full-time, lifetime work means servitude. Full employment in a flexible society can mean different people, at different stages of their lives, wanting to work and being able to work different hours.
Of course, flexibility by itself is not a cure for unemployment. Investment in education and training is essential; in part to ensure that those now unemployed have the skills that employers increasingly need. But flexible employment would mean that we could start to offer some practical hope to those for whom there is now precious little hope at all.
The author is deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. Her book 'About Time: The Revolution in Work and Family Life', is published today by Rivers Oram/IPPR at pounds 9.95.Reuse content