Headline figures miss important groups, such as the part-time workers who want to go full-time but can’t, or the freelancers and self-employed who are barely attracting enough work or customers to get by. Neither of these groups are out of work; but nor are they fully employed. And while they are included in some totting up by the Office for National Statistics, it is pretty basic stuff.
Well, we now have possibly the best study yet of Britain’s hidden unemployment problem. In a paper soon to be published in the National Institute Economic Review, David Bell and David Blanchflower (the former rate-setter at the Bank of England who saw the slump of 2008-9 coming) have compiled what they call an “underemployment index”: the net sum of all the extra hours at current wages that Britons want to work, but can’t. Until 2007, they find, as many people felt over-worked as felt under-worked. Then came the crash.
Today, Britons would work an extra 20m hours if they could only get them. That’s equivalent to putting another half a million on last month’s unemployment total, to take it over 3 million. Had this hidden unemployment been taken into account in the headline figures, according to Bell and Blanchflower, the jobless rate at the end of last year would have been not 8%, but 10%.
We’re conditioned by previous slumps to think of the victims as those who just can’t find work: a Jarrow Marcher, say, or Yosser Hughes. But the face of this depression (because that’s what it really is, and we should stop fannying around with euphemisms) is the shopworker on a zero-hours contract, the part-timer who can’t go full-time, the self-employed consultant whose phone hasn’t rung for days. Nominally, these people are in work; in reality, they don’t consider that they have a working income. And, Bell and Blanchflower find, full-time employees increasingly want more hours – so they too increasingly count as underemployed. This must be as a direct product of how British wages since the banking crisis have failed to keep up with inflation, so that real incomes are now 10% down from 2008 – and show no sign of picking up any time soon.
Chronic joblessness leads to mental illness, broken marriages and even suicides; but what’s striking in Bell and Blanchflower’s study is that the impact of forced underemployment is almost as corrosive of one’s sense of wellbeing.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor
UK unemployment rose by 70,000 to 2.56 million between December and February, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has said. It pushed the unemployment rate to 7.9%, raising further questions about the UK’s economic strength. The number of people in employment also fell, while earnings growth slowed considerably, according to ONS data. But there was … Continue reading »