The government is delighted with recent figures for employment. Employment Minister Alok Sharma commented,
“Our pro-business policies have helped boost private sector employment by 3.8 million since 2010, and as the Resolution Foundation’s latest report shows, the ‘jobs-boom has helped some of the most disadvantaged groups find employment’, providing opportunities across society.”
And the official statistics appear to confirm this. According to the Office for National Statistics, the percentage of people of working age in some form of employment is now at record levels. What’s not to like?
And yet it doesn’t quite feel like this – most people are actually poorer than they were in 2010. Mass impoverishment shows no sign of going away. And, anecdotally, many young people feel that they are struggling to find the jobs they want.
Who is right?
Technically, the government is right: the figures it quotes follow the ILO definition of employment, according to which any employment, however insecure, however little there is of it (even just one hour per week) and however low-paid, counts as employment. And there is the problem. Although national statistical authorities struggle to produce precise figures for the growth of the gig economy, they can see enough to know that it is growing, and that it is driving down wages.
In the UK, roughly one in six workers are now in low-paid, insecure employment. Katherine Chapman, Director of the Living Wage Foundation, said of this:
“The Living Wage has put almost £1bn extra into the pockets of more than 200,000 workers, but it’s increasingly clear that pay is not the only driver of in-work poverty. A lack of secure, stable hours is leaving millions of families struggling to keep their heads above water. This isn’t good for workers or businesses.
“Constant uncertainty over the number of hours, timings of your shifts or the amount of pay you’ll get each week places people under enormous pressure. A shift cancelled at the last minute might sound small, but it can be the difference between being able to pay for your family’s dinner that night or going hungry. And being expected to work at short notice means you can’t plan around other costs and commitments.”
If we define a ‘proper job’ as one which pays at least a living wage, which provides some level of job security, and some certainty over the number of hours that will be worked and when they will be worked, we can see that these one in six workers do not have proper jobs. And if we use the Office for National Statistics figures for zero hours contracts as an indicator for the growth rate in these insecure, low-paid jobs, we get a picture like this.
The number of proper jobs has been declining since 2008, and is not yet showing signs of recovery. No wonder we feel a sense of cognitive dissonance every time a politician celebrates the state of the jobs market.
A problem which affects one in six of the working population deserves to be taken seriously – especially when it is a clear driver of mass impoverishment. Statisticians need to update their data collection, and government urgently needs to respond to the challenge.