Leading Article: Flexible women take over the job market

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WITH this week's unemployment figures there emerged a remarkable statistic: eight of every nine jobs created since June have gone to women. Employment among men, by contrast, has barely begun to recover after a four-year decline. There is ample further evidence confirming the trend towards employing women. Since 1977, for example, the level of employment for men in the UK has fallen by 2 million, or 11 per cent, while women have increased theirs by 6 per cent. During the boom years of the Eighties, female employment in Britain grew by 22 per cent, and nearly 60 per cent of women of working age had jobs.

The outlook for men has grown increasingly bleak. In the period 1977-91, the percentage of men of working age without jobs rose from 9 to 18 per cent, including those excluded from the unemployment count because they had given up the search for work and become 'economically inactive'.

As suggested in a recent study from the Institute for Public Policy Research (Work and Welfare: Tackling the Jobs Deficit, by Edward Balls and Paul Gregg) there appears to be a mismatch between the type of jobs being created and the willingness either of men to take them or of employers to give them to men. Much of this new employment has been in the services sector (shops, tourism, financial services, the professions), with two-thirds involving part-time employment. By 1990, part-time work accounted for 21.8 per cent of employment.

Evidence from surveys indicates that a majority of non-employed men prefer full-time and permanent jobs, typically high-paying work in manufacturing industry demanding job-related skills rather than educational qualifications. The availability of such jobs goes on shrinking. Growth has been strongest in, though not confined to, the type of flexible, often part-time 'women's jobs' in the services sector that men tend to shun.

Because unemployed men are liable to lose part or all of their social benefits if their wives work, a majority of women entering the labour market are married to working husbands. For part-time work, the proportion of women is 80 per cent, of whom 91 per cent have a working husband. So families are likely to have two earners, or none. The social implications are worrying. There has been much debate about the links between unemployment, poverty and the high level of crime that the new Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill is intended to reduce. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, does not accept that such a link exists. But it is at least likely that a significant proportion of poorly educated unemployed young men will be tempted by theft, burglary and drug-dealing or, less seriously, the black market, as ways of increasing their income.

A study in Boston in the US in 1989 found that two-thirds of young men believed they could make more money 'on the streets' than in a job. This country's recession officially started in the third quarter of 1990. In the previous two years, crime fell. Between 1990 and 1992, it rose.

Such long-term measures as improvements in education, training and re-training should eventually help to counter the danger of an ever-growing pool of virtually unemployable young men. In the shorter term, changes to the benefit system are needed to make it worthwhile for men to take on the sort of part-time work from which they are now discouraged by the 'poverty trap'. The present system pays people to be idle and penalises them by taxation and the withdrawal of benefits if they work at low rates. It would make more sense to use the money to price people into work.

On top of that, men need to adjust their attitudes and expectations to the new realities. With growth likely to go on being concentrated in the services sector, they will have to begin to show some of the same flexibility as women if they are to compete effectively in the job market.