How safe is your job?

Downsizing is the spectre, we are told, that threatens every white- collar worker. Yet, as Yvette Cooper explains, hard evidence that middle- class jobs have become significantly less secure is difficult to find
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One of America's great downsizing gurus has changed his mind. Suddenly Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach has decided that the fierce cost- cutting and staff-slashing he has been advocating for years is not all it's cracked up to be. The news will come a little late and taste a little sour to all the former middle managers still searching the job vacancy columns.

But has Mr Roach simply jumped on to a new fashionable bandwagon? Anguish about downsizing, and about the job insecurity for which it is blamed, is widespread on both sides of the Atlantic. The countless columns on the subject in the national press suggest America is obsessed. The New York Times recently devoted a seven-part series to the phenomenon, the largest journalistic enterprise it has undertaken since the early 1970s. It came up with the slightly dubious estimate that more than 43 million US jobs had been lost since 1979. Meanwhile, the right-wing Republican Pat Buchanan rode a tide of middle-class fears about job losses with his proposals for a return to protectionism during his presidential campaign.

Back here in Britain too, job insecurity is becoming the buzz-word of the decade. This, we are told, is why there is no feel-good factor despite years of economic growth. And most politically potent of all, this new insecurity has spread to the articulate, white-collar swing voters in the middle class.

The curious thing is there is very little tangible evidence in either Britain or the US that middle-class workers face greater risk of losing their jobs than in the past. In Britain, the length of time spent in the same job by the average person has hardly changed over the past 10 years. In 1984, you could expect to stay in one job for five years and five months. In 1994, the figure fell only to five years and two months.

Other facts point to the same conclusion. According to the LSE economists Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth, the proportion of people leaving their jobs each year (the "separation rate") has increased slightly over the past 10 years from 15 per cent to 16.2 per cent. But these are hardly startling figures.

Gregg and Wadsworth also find that job insecurity for the middle classes is still much, much lower than for their unskilled counterparts. Between 1979 and 1993 the proportion of graduates leaving their jobs rose from 8.5 per cent to 10.5 per cent. But for low-skilled workers, the proportion leaving a job rose from 19 per cent to 24 per cent.

Faced with this kind of evidence, the babble about down-sizing and job insecurity appears to be self-indulgent middle-class angst. Could it be the whole thing is merely fashionable hype, whipped up by journalists experiencing cuts in their own industry and opposition politicians who hope it will win them votes?

Not quite. Although the middle classes still have it easy compared to their working-class colleagues, there is some new evidence that the risks they face have increased very recently. Official figures on job tenure and turnover do not capture the most recent changes. It seems that the number of redundancies rose in 1995 compared to 1994, despite the continued fall in unemployment. And they increased particularly among managerial and clerical occupations. (see table opposite). Coming out of the recession manual workers were still far more likely to lose their jobs than middle- class, managerial staff. Now the gap is much narrower.

Levels of insecurity depend not just on the chance of losing your job, but also on the consequences - and these have indeed become more dire than they were 10 years ago. Support from the welfare state has been cut, we have far more debts hanging over us to be repaid, and the wages we can command in any future job will be drastically lowered.

But even supposing middle-class job insecurity has gone up, we still don't know if this is a permanent change, or just a one-off event as companies restructure. The Princeton economist Henry Farber believes the number of administrative jobs required in the economy has dropped - just as the number of manufacturing jobs dropped in the early Eighties. Although there will be losers, new jobs will be created elsewhere. On the other hand, it could be that we face a permanently more fluid labour market in which we all change jobs more frequently, as industries and technologies move on at an ever more rapid pace.

Whatever the facts about job insecurity, the anxiety is real enough. The challenge for politicians is to find ways to ease those fears, without raising expectations. Their starting point should be to reduce the catastrophic costs to workers of losing their existing jobs by ensuring they are properly insured against unemployment, and can re-skill to find new work. But whatever they do, they ignore popular concern at their peril.

One: white-collar redundancies are up

Three reason why we fear downsizing

The number of redundancies has fallen dramatically since the recession - from 391,000 in the spring of 1991 to 220,000 in spring last year. But despite the fact that unemployment has continued to fall, the number of redundancies grew between 1994 and 1995 - by around 10 per cent. It is too early to tell whether the trend will be sustained.

Not all occupations have been affected in the same way. For managers, administrators, clerical and secretarial workers, the risk of redundancy was never as high as for other groups (only 1.3-1.4 per cent during the recession compared with 1.8 per cent overall). But that risk hasn't fallen much since the recession, and in 1995 it started to increase again. As the graph shows, white-collar job losses appear to be increasing, independently of the economic cycle.

Of course, skilled and unskilled manual workers still face the highest risk of being made redundant - around 1.4 per cent in autumn 1995, compared with an average risk of about 1 per cent. Yet their circumstances have at least improved since the height of the recession, when they stood more than a 3 per cent chance of being made redundant.

Rising insecurity may well be an M-people problem: it afflicts the middle class, middle aged, men. Women have always had higher job turnover than men, but their job tenure is rising. Meanwhile, the young and the old have always been vulnerable to losing their jobs. The middle aged are having to get used to it for the first time. In the US, similar things are happening: the President's Council of Economic Advisers admits that there too, the risk of unemployment for older, white-collar and better educated workers has risen - but still remains lower than for younger, blue-collar and less educated employees.

Two: the cost of losing your job is higher

Losing your job becomes a far more worrying prospect if you have more to lose. We are more indebted to banks, building societies and credit card companies today than we were 10 years ago.

And there is less support available to see us through from the welfare state. Non means- tested unemployment benefits are available only for six months rather than a year, and help with mortgage interest payments for the unemployed has been abolished.

But even more important, a spell unemployed now seriously damages your job and earning prospects in the future.

LSE economists Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth find that the earnings you can expect in your new job are seriously affected too. Entry jobs - jobs that the unemployed move into - are far more likely to be low-paid, temporary or part-time. And even for two people with identical skills and experience, the one who has been unemployed can expect to earn 20 per cent less in his new job than another who has simply switched between employers.

Seen like this, the middle classes may well be more worried than the low-skilled and low- paid, for they have more to lose.

The 50-year-old middle manager who loses a comfortably paid executive position may find the only alternative work pays much less than he is used to, and makes it difficult to keep up the repayments on his mortgage and his debts. The unskilled 20-year-old who loses one low- paid job has fewer commitments, but also less far to fall.

From the US come horror stories of middle managers losing their jobs and having to take a 50 per cent pay cut. Especially in industries in which technology is moving fast, a period of unemployment may permanently impair job prospects. Tough if you are a parent with a mortgage and parents of your own to look after.

Three: more new jobs are temporary

Even as employment has grown since the end of the recession, the number of permanent jobs has fallen by more than 100,000. In their place have grown more than 300,000 temporary jobs. Inevitably those workers face greater insecurity than their colleagues in permanent positions; they have no guarantee of employment once the contract ends, and they have far fewer employment rights. On average temporary work pays 17 per cent less than permanent work.

A temporary contract does not necessarily mean insecurity. The highly qualified computer analyst who switches from one well-paid post to another is probably more secure than her counterpart in a low skilled "permanent" sales job. The real insecurity is experienced by those who lack the skills to switch between jobs and are stuck in low-paid short-term jobs.

Full-time jobs have fallen too, while part-time jobs have grown. Although many of the new part-time jobs have been taken up by women who do not want to work the long hours of a full-time job because of family responsibilties, some are going to people who would rather work full time. Since 1992, the number of part-time workers claiming they would rather be doing a full-time job has gone up by 175,000.

How white-collar jobs became higher risk