Unemployment and employment are concepts that are often talked about in the media. Indeed, the 7% unemployment target referred to by the Governor of the Bank of England has been a constant feature of recent headlines. However, rather than targeting an unemployment rate of 7%, George Osborne has now called for ‘full employment’ and believes that tax and welfare changes are key to meeting this objective.
Reducing the unemployment rate is a key macroeconomic objective and the costs of unemployment are well-documented. There are obviously big costs to the individual and his/her family, including lower income, dependency, stress and potential health effects. There are also costs to the government: lower income tax revenues, potentially lower revenues from VAT through reduced consumer expenditure and the possibility of higher benefit payments. There are other more ‘economic’ costs, namely an inefficient use of resources. Unemployment represents a cost to the economy, as we are operating below full capacity and we therefore see a waste of resources. It is for this reason that ‘full employment’ is being targeted.
Traditional economic theory suggests that there is a trade-off between unemployment and inflation, illustrated by the well-known Phillips curve. In the past, governments have been willing to sacrifice unemployment for the purpose of reducing inflation. There have also been attempts to boost the economy and create jobs through increased borrowing. However, George Osborne has said:
Unemployment is never a price worth paying, but artificial jobs paid for with borrowed money doesn’t work either.
A figure representing full employment hasn’t been mentioned, so it remains unclear what level of unemployment would be acceptable, as despite the name ‘full employment’, this doesn’t mean that everyone has a job. There are several definitions of full employment, in both an economic and political context. In the period of reconstruction after the Second World War, William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state, defined full employment as where 3% of people would be unemployed.
In more recent times, other definitions have been given. In the era of monetarism in the 1970s, the term ‘natural rate of unemployment’ was used to define the unemployment rate to which economies tend in the long run – after inflationary expectations have adjusted. Keynesians use the term the ‘non-accelerating-inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU)’, where unemployment is confined to equilibrium unemployment and where there is no excess or deficiency of aggregate demand. Both the natural rate and the NAIRU relate to the rate of unemployment at which the long-run Phillips curve is vertical.
In its Economic and Fiscal Outlook of March 2013, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimated the UK’s NAIRU to be 5.4%. George Osborne has not specified a particular rate. Rather, his speech refers to creating the ‘highest employment rate of any of the world’s leading economies’. He said the ambition was to make the UK:
…the best place in the world to create a job; to get a job; to keep a job; to be helped to look for another job if you lose one…A modern approach to full employment means backing business. It means cutting the tax on jobs and reforming welfare.
Therefore, while it appears that there is no target figure for unemployment, it seems that a new Conservative objective will be to focus on sustainable job creation and eliminate disequilibrium unemployment. This represents a move very much into Labour territory. Meeting the objective will be no easy task, given the past few years and such high levels of youth unemployment, as Labour were quick to point out, but the unemployment figures are certainly moving in the right direction. The following articles consider the objective of full employment.
Britain’s Osborne changes tone on economy with “full employment” target Reuters, William James (31/3/14)
George Osborne commits to ‘fight for full employment’ BBC News (including video) (1/4/14)
What does full employment mean? The Guardian (1/4/14)
What is full employment? The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (31/3/14)
’Jobs matter’, says George Osborne as he aims for full employment Independent, Andrew Grice (31/3/14)
Liam Bynre: Labour would aim for ‘full employment’ BBC News (17/5/13)
Osborne pledges full employment for UK Sky News (31/3/14)
Osborne commits to full employment as election looms Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (31/3/14)
Whatever happened to full employment? BBC News, Tom de Castella and Caroline McClatchey (13/10/11)