Brexiteers will celebrate highest employment rates since 1975 – but wages are falling

Much of the rise in work has been taken up by the self-employed, now 15 per cent of the workforce, and by people beyond normal retirement age

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The Independent Online

Is our economy a great job machine, or one that that forces people to work in insecure jobs for little pay? The answer is, of course, both. But stand back a moment at look at what the latest labour market stats tell us about the British job market more generally. I find it astounding in at least half a dozen different ways.

First, the economy is wonderful at creating jobs. Even now, despite real or supposed fears about the impact of Brexit, employment is still rising at an annual rate of nearly half a million.

Second, thanks to this, it is easier to get a job than at any stage since the early 1970s. The portion of people of working age in employment is the highest since comparable records began in 1971, and the unemployment rate the lowest since 1975.  

Third, this growth in employment has coincided with little labour unrest. As the Office for National Statistics observes: “The number of working days lost are at historically low levels when looking at the long-run monthly time series back to the 1930s.” Two-thirds of the loss in hours worked came in health, social work and education.

Fourth, while the UK has been good at creating jobs for Britons, nearly all the increase in employment over the past year has been taken up by people born abroad. There are nearly 400,000 more people born outside the UK in jobs here than there were a year ago.

Fifth, the fall in unemployment and rise in employment has not lead to a surge in wages. Indeed, at the moment real wages are falling, for year-on-year pay increases of 2.1 per cent, excluding bonuses, are lower than consumer price increases of 2.7 per cent, and they have been pretty much stuck for a decade.

And finally, in a sign of how flexible our job market has become, much of the rise in work has been taken up by the self-employed, now 15 per cent of the workforce, and by people beyond normal retirement age.

Since we are in the middle of an election campaign, any economic statistics are inevitably viewed through the political prism, as the immediate reaction to these figures already shows. The fact that the labour market has been so strong over the past year will reinforce the view of the Brexiteers that the Treasury misled them when it claimed that a vote to leave would increase unemployment by between 500,000 and 800,000 within two years.

Brexiteers may also seize on the extent to which jobs have gone to foreigners rather than Britons. However, Remainers will note how dependent the UK economy is on foreign workers, and in some sectors it would be very hard to replace them.

People who broadly support government policy will point to the fact that having the lowest unemployment in the working life of most people in the land is a huge achievement. Those who oppose it will note that real wages are at best stagnant and at worst falling.

Those who focus on the poor productivity performance of the UK relative to, for example, France, will use these numbers to argue that the UK should move to a more regulated continental model. Others will note that it is the influx of young Europeans who cannot get jobs at home that have had the effect of reducing UK labour productivity.

Those who for whatever reason (and there are lots of concerns) are distrustful of the “gig economy” will seize on the extent to which self-employment is rising as a measure of insecurity. Those who have chosen to become self-employed will applaud the rise in self-reliance and freedom associated with working for yourself rather than for someone else.

You can even interpret the low level of labour unrest in two different ways. Does this mean that working people are content with their lot, or does it mean they are cowed into submission?

The point at which everyone would come together, though, is that the economy needs to be increasing real wages faster than it has been doing (and I know there is a dispute about the figures) and that means that we have to work out how to increase labour productivity without cutting employment. That means using people more efficiently, which in turn means a better-trained workforce.

As a footnote, I have just looked up what the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later PM) was saying last time unemployment was a low as it is now. James Callaghan in 1976 told the BBC: “Let me say that of course there has been a fall in people's standard of life. And it has fallen this year and will fall again next year.”