Unemployment is a term that economists and non-economists are familiar with, even if the non-economists perhaps have a less stringent definition of what we term unemployment. Typically, we say you are unemployed if you are of working age and available for work at the current wage rate, but are not in work. Another important and related concept is that of underemployment, which according to the ONS, is a growing problem in the economy.
Latest figures released by the ONS show that just over 10% of all workers in the UK would like to work more hours each week. This is essentially what underemployment is and it typically affects part-time workers who want to move closer to a full-time job, but are unable to find the necessary hours from their employer. As the economic situation in the UK worsened after the financial crisis, unemployment increased rapidly. Some people went from working full-time to part-time and others simply lost their job. As the economy started to stabilize, people began returning to work, but many found that part-time employment was the only option, despite wanting to work many more hours at the going wage rate. As the ONS said:
During this period [the economic downturn] many workers moved from full-time to part-time roles and many of those returning to work after a period of unemployment could only find part-time jobs … Of the extra one million underemployed workers in 2012 compared with 2008, three-quarters were in part-time posts.
The increase in underemployment has levelled off and though the recession has been a key contributing factor to the higher levels of underemployment, it’s important to note that it can be caused by a few things, as outlined by the ONS.
• employers only being able to offer a few hours of work each week
• workers, such as bar staff, being in jobs where they are only required for a few hours a day
• personal circumstances changing so that someone now wants to work more hours than before
• people settling for a part-time job as second-best when they would much rather have a full-time one
Although many people are happy with their part-time jobs and hence would not see themselves as underemployed, for those who are underemployed, the fact that they cannot find sufficient hours seems to indicate an inefficiency within the economy, especially if long-term unemployment or underemployment emerges. This problem is particularly relevant amongst the young and those in low-skilled jobs. However, it is also an increasing problem amongst the self-employed.
The implications of underemployment are far-reaching. Naturally it adversely affects an individual’s financial situation, which at the current time with rising household bills can have devastating consequences. There are also wider effects such as the economic implications in terms of economic growth and inefficiency, as well as a potential increased strain on the tax and benefits system. Given these far-reaching consequences, it is an issue that everyone should be concerned about. The following articles consider the growth of underemployment in the UK economy.
Underemployed workers jump by 1m since financial crisis Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (28/11/12)
Underemployment affects 10.5% of UK workforce (including video) BBC News (28/11/12)
Economic crash leaves an extra 1million workers under-employed and wanting more hours Mail Online (28/11/12)
UK is underemployed: should we be surprised? BBC News, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (28/11/12)
Unemployment affects 1 in 10 workers, ONS says Guardian, Mark King (28/11/12)
One in 10 workers no underemployed Financial Times, Brian Groom (28/11/12)
Underemployment rises to affect one in ten workers Channel 4 News (28/11/12)
- What is the difference between unemployment and underemployment? Is one worse than the other?
- Why did underemployment initially begin to rise after the financial crisis and what factors helped to slow the increase?
- How can underemployment be measured? Is it likely to be accurate?
- Part-time work has risen in recent decades, as part of a more flexible labour market. Do you think this is a good thing or does it add to the problem of underemployment?
- What are the economic implications of underemployment? You should think about the effects on an individual, their family, society and the wider economy.
- How can someone who is self-employed be classed as underemployed?
- What action, if any, can be taken by the government to tackle the rising problem of underemployment?
UK Unemployment figures for the July to September period have just been published. Perhaps surprisingly, the rate has fallen to 7.8% from 8.0% in the previous 3-month period. What is more, there have been similar 0.2 percentage-point falls in each of the two 3-month periods prior to that (see chart below).
This would normally suggest that the economy has been growing strongly and faster than the growth in potential output. But, despite positive economic growth in quarter 3 (see A positive turn of events?), the economy has been experiencing a prolonged period of low or negative growth.
So what is the explanation for the fall in unemployment? (For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here)
One reason is a greater flexibility in the labour market than in previous recessions. People are more willing to accept below inflation wage increases, or even nominal wage cuts, in return for greater job security. Others are prepared to reduce their hours.
The other reason is a fall in productivity (i.e. output per hour worked). One explanation is that people are not working so hard because, with a lack of demand, there is less pressure on them to be productive; a similar explanation is that firms are ‘hoarding’ labour in the hope that the market will pick up again.
Another explanation is that employment growth has often occurred in the low productivity industries, such as labour-intensive service industries; another is that when people leave their jobs they are replace by less productive workers on lower wages; another is that workers are making do with ageing equipment, whose productivity is falling, because firms cannot afford to invest in new equipment. An range of possible explanations is given on page 33 of the Bank of England’s November 2012 Inflation Report.
But with many predicting that growth will be negative again in 2012 quarter 4, the fall in unemployment may not continue. Britain may join many other countries in Europe and experience rising unemployment as well as falling output.
Government hails fall in jobless total The Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (14/11/12)
UK unemployment figures: analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/11/12)
Jobless claims rise as Olympics effect wanes The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper and Louisa Peacock (14/11/12)
UK unemployment falls to 2.51 million, ONS says BBC News (14/11/12)
Unemployment continuing to fall BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (14/11/12)
Britain’s recession: Harsh but fair? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (17/10/12)
The UK productivity puzzle (cont’d) BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (20/9/12)
UK jobs: The plot thickens BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/8/12)
Unemployment: the key UK data and benefit claimants for every constituency Guardian Data Blog
Labour Market Statistics, November 2012 ONS
Video Summary: Latest on the Labour Market, November 2012 ONS
Labour Productivity, Q2 2012 ONS
International Comparisons of Productivity, First estimates for 2011 ONS
- What possible explanation are there for the latest fall in unemployment?
- What has been happening to employment, both full time and part time?
- What are the different ways of measuring productivity? Why will they be affected differently by a fall in the average number of hours worked?
- Why might it be in firms’ interests to maintain the level of their workforce despite falling sales?
- Assume that there has been a fall in aggregate demand. Compare the resulting effect on consumption of (a) a fall in wages rates; (b) a rise in unemployment. How might the design of the benefit system affect the answer?
Countries differ considerably in terms of the number of hours people work.
Despite the criticisms levelled at Greece, with some claiming that Greek workers are ‘lazy’, according to 2010 figures, the average worker in Greece worked 2109 hours per year – more than in any other European country. The average German worker worked 1419 hours and the average Dutch worker only 1377.
Internationally, amongst developed countries, Korea has the highest number of working hours per worker at 2193 per year. In the USA, the figure is 1778 hours and in the UK it’s 1647. (Click on chart below for a larger version.)
But working long hours does not mean working more productively. Generally the countries in which people work longer hours have lower output per hour.
The following podcast and articles look at the relationship between hours worked and productivity and consider which way the causality lies. They also look at related issues such as the proportion of part-time working and the length of annual paid holidays.
Hardest Working Nations (also at) More or Less: BBC Radio 4, Tim Harford talks to Jon Messenger from the ILO (18/5/12)
Who works the longest hours? BBC News Magazine, Wesley Stephenson (23/5/12)
Are Greeks the hardest workers in Europe? BBC News Magazine, Charlotte McDonald (26/2/12)
Working Time around the World ILO, Sangheon Lee, Deirdre McCann and Jon C. Messenger (Routledge, 2007)
International Comparisons of Productivity – 2010 – Final Estimates: Statistical Bulletin ONS (6/3/12)
International Comparisons of Productivity – 2010 – Final Estimates: Data ONS (6/3/12)
Productivity Statistics OECD
Table 8: Average annual working time: Hours per worker Employment and Labour Markets, OECD
- Which countries tend to work the longest hours?
- Would cutting working hours, either through legislation or by agreement with companies, allow more people to be employed? Explain why it might be more complicated than this.
- What is the relationship between labour productivity per hour and the average number of hours worked per worker? Do people work longer hours because they are less productive or are they less productive because they work longer hours?
- Why factors determine labour productivity?
- Why may average hours worked be deceptive in terms of assessing how hard people are working?
- Why do US workers work more hours per year on average than UK workers?
UK unemployment now stands at 2.47 million, which is a fall of 34,000 people in the three months to May. Meanwhile, the claimant count, which measures the number of individuals claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, fell by 20,800 between May and June to stand at 1.46 million.
The total number in employment increased by some 160,000 in the three months to May to reach 28.98 million. The increase in the number of individuals in work is largely due to an increase in the number of part-time workers, which now stands at some 27%. The development of the flexible firm has played a huge role in creating more and more part-time jobs.
Although declining unemployment is good news, and the jobless rate of 7.8% is now comparable with the EU and the US, there are suggestions that it may rise again next year. Indeed, unemployment is expected to peak at nearly 3 million in 2012 (10%) and an employer’s group has said that the UK may face serious job deficits for the next decade. As more and more jobs are lost in the public sector, estimates suggest that the economy must grow by 2.5% per year from now until 2015, in order to compensate these losses with extra jobs in the private sector.
As John Philpott, the Chief Economic Adviser at the CIPD said:
“A slightly milder growth outcome – which many would consider a decent recovery in output given the various strong headwinds at present facing the economy – is easily as imaginable as the OBR’s central forecast and would leave unemployment still close to 2.5 million by 2015, meaning Britain faces at least half a decade of serious prolonged jobs deficit.”
So, although the fall in the jobless rate is undoubtedly good news, the uncertain future for unemployment in the UK, will put a slight dampener on this news.
UK unemployment declines to 2.47m BBC News (14/7/10)
Economy Tracker BBC News (14/7/10)
Unemployment to peak at 3m by 2012 Telegraph (14/7/10)
Labour market report to show outlook for jobs worse than OBR projections Guardian, Katie Allen (14/7/10)
Part-time work boosts UK employment rate Sky News, Hazel Tyldesley (14/7/10)
Unemployment figures: what the experts say Guardian, Katie Allen (14/7/10)
Labour market statistics latest: Employment ONS
Labour Market Statistical Bulletin – July 2010 ONS
Labour market statistics: portal page ONS
- How is unemployment measured in the UK? Which is the most accurate method?
- What is the flexible firm and how has it allowed more part-time jobs to be created?
- Why is unemployment expected to rise again in the next few years?
- The ONS has reported that wage growth has eased sharply. How will this, along with falling unemployment rates, affect household incomes and consumption? Will one effect offset the other?
- Brendan Barber in the Guardian article, ‘Unemployment figures – what the experts say’, wrote that unemployment lags behind the rest of the economy. Why is this?
- What type of unemployment are we experiencing in the UK? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- Consider the government’s plans in terms of spending cuts. How are they likely to affect the rate of unemployment in the UK?