Sean O'Grady: So where on earth have all the proper jobs gone?

Thursday 18 February 2010 01:00 GMT

We are witnessing the slow death of the full-time job.

It is a trend that goes back many years, if not decades, but has been given a massive shove by the recession. Even now, with the general level of unemployment starting to stabilise, the cull of proper jobs goes on; down another 37,000 in the last quarter; while part-time work is up again, this time by 25,000.

Over the past year, full-time employment has fallen by a massive 585,000, while part-time jobs are up 157,000. So full-time workers now number 21.2 million, and part-timers 7.7 million. The casuals are catching up. The trend is strongly associated with the decline in the type of traditional, usually male job in manufacturing, complete with final salary pension scheme and training, that was once common in the North and Midlands, but which is now in danger of extinction. Manufacturing employment has fallen again, to 2.6 million; the lowest since Britain become an industrial power. The trend seems set to continue, with deep social and political repercussions.

Not everyone welcomes the new flexibility. The evidence in the official numbers is that Britain is becoming a nation of unwilling part-timers and temps, resentful perhaps that they have been left in this situation by a mean benefits system, the decline in union power and the "job for life" mentality, and the more rapid pace of economic change.

The million-plus workers who have told researchers for the Office for National Statistics that they are in part-time work because they cannot find a full-time job, and the other half a million who are temping while looking for a "proper" job are testament to that.

Others are drifting in and out of the labour market, taking jobs when they can. At the moment students are leaving the market, and pensioners are going back in, maybe because their savings and pension pots have been hit so badly by low interest rates and the financial turmoil of the last few years.

Some interested parties have certainly noticed the change. David Kern, chief economist at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), pointed out yesterday that: "While these figures are broadly welcome, they hide some worrying trends: Full-time employment continues to fall; the number of people working part-time is at a record high; there was a large increase in those claiming benefits; and inactivity has risen further.

Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, has noted the trends as well: "The record number of involuntary part-time workers shows that beneath the surface millions of people are under-employed. The recession will not be over for these people until they are back in secure jobs and working the hours they need to earn to a decent living."

That won't happen.

Blame, if you like, our much vaunted flexible labour market and, in particular, measures such as the Flexible New Deal, which pushes people off benefits and into any kind of work, even though it might not be deemed ideal by the individuals concerned.

Taken together, the total of the headline unemployment numbers plus the "hidden" unemployment of people in jobs they don't want is just short of 4 million.

This all has long-term consequences for the nation, and will result in an even more divided, unequal society.

Those who have traditional full-time secure jobs with a pension are increasingly a blessed minority – the rest of the nation is scrabbling away trying to get work where and when they can, with not even paid holidays, let alone a final salary pension scheme.

Another impact will be that part-time workers will be unable to build up as much capital over their lives, and banks and building societies – burned by "liars loans" for "freelancers" in the past – will be unwilling – or unable under tougher regulatory rules designed to safeguard against a return to the sub-prime crisis – to offer mortgages to the newly casualised British worker. Property will still be expensive, and they will never be able to bunt when it appreciates in value.

The part-timers will have to rent, and maybe put off having a family. And the poorer you are the worse the life chances of your children, so these new, deeper inequalities in society will echo down the generations.

How will this affect politics as the years go on? Resentment of relatively secure, well-pensioned public sector jobs is there already, and seems likely to mount. A less rooted population might become more volatile in its politics as well, and there is a fair bet that, as ever, some ill feeling and envy will be aimed at immigrant workers, who tend to populate the casual, poorer-paid end of the jobs market. The Britain that leaves this recession will look very different, and not necessarily prettier, from the one that entered it.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in