In the last blog post, As UK inflation rises, so real wages begin to fall, we showed how the rise in inflation following the Brexit vote is causing real wages in the UK to fall once more, after a few months of modest rises, which were largely due to very low price inflation. But how does this compare with other OECD countries?
In an article by Rui Costa and Stephen Machin from the LSE, the authors show how, from the start of the financial crisis in 2007 to 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), real hourly wages fell further in the UK than in all the other 27 OECD countries, except Greece (see the chart below, which is Figure 5 from their article). Indeed, only in Greece, the UK and Portugal were real wages lower in 2015 than in 2007.
The authors examine a number of aspects of real wages in the UK, including the rise in self employment, differences by age and sex, and for different percentiles in the income distribution. They also look at how family incomes have suffered less than real wages, thanks to the tax and benefit system.
The authors also look at what the different political parties have been saying about the issues during their election campaigns and what they plan to do to address the problem of falling, or only slowly rising, real wages.
Real Wages and Living Standards in the UK LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The Return of Falling Real Wages LSE – Centre for Economic Performance, David Blanchflower, Rui Costa and Stephen Machin (May 2017)
The chart that shows UK workers have had the worst wage performance in the OECD except Greece Independent, Ben Chu (5/6/17)
Earnings and working hours ONS
International comparisons of productivity ONS
- Why have real wages fallen more in the UK than in all OECD countries except Greece?
- Which groups have seen the biggest fall in real wages? Explain why.
- What policies are proposed by the different parties for raising real wages (a) generally; (b) for the poorest workers?
- How has UK productivity growth compared with that in other developed countries? What explanations can you offer?
- What is the relationship between productivity growth and the growth in real wages?
The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced in the Budget this week that national insurance contributions (NICs) for self-employed people will rise from 9% to 11% by 2019. These are known as ‘Class 4’ NICs. The average self-employed person will pay around £240 more per year, but those on incomes over £45,000 will pay £777 more per year. Many of the people affected will be those working in the so-called ‘gig economy’. This sector has been growing rapidly in recent years and now has over 4 million people working in it.
Workers in the gig economy are self employed, but are often contracted to an employer. They are paid by the job (or ‘gig’: like musicians), rather than being paid a wage. Much of the work is temporary, although many in the gig economy, such as taxi drivers and delivery people stick with the same job. The gig economy is just one manifestation of the growing flexibility of labour markets, which have also seen a rise in temporary employment, part-time employment and zero-hour contracts.
Working in the gig economy provides a number of benefits for workers. Workers have greater flexibility in their choice of hours and many work wholly or partly from home. Many do several ‘gigs’ simultaneously, which gives variety and interest.
In terms of economic theory, this flexibility gives workers a greater opportunity to work the optimal amount of time. This optimum involves working up to the point where the marginal benefit from work, in terms of pay and enjoyment, equals the marginal cost, in terms of effort and sacrificed leisure.
For firms using people from the gig economy, it has a number of advantages. They are generally cheaper to employ, as they do not need to be paid sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy; they are not entitled to parental leave; there are no employers’ national insurance contributions to pay (which are at a rate of 13.8% for employers); the minimum wage does not apply to such workers as they are not paid a ‘wage’. Also the firm using such workers has greater flexibility in determining how much work individuals should do: it chooses the amount of service it buys in a similar way that consumers decide how much to buy.
Many of these advantages to firms are disadvantages to the workers in the gig economy. Many have little bargaining power, whereas many firms using their services do. It is not surprising then that the Chancellor’s announcement of a 2 percentage point rise in NICs for such people has met with such dismay by the people affected. They will still pay less than employed people, but they claim that this is now not enough to compensate for the lack of benefits they receive from the state or from the firms paying for their services.
Some of the workers in the gig economy can be seen as budding entrepreneurs. If you have a specialist skill, you may use working in the gig economy as the route to setting up your own business and employing other people. A self-employed plumber may set up a plumbing company; a management consultant may set up a management consultancy agency. Another criticism of the rise in Class 4 NICs is that this will discourage such budding entrepreneurs and have longer-term adverse supply-side effects on the economy.
As far as the government is concerned, there is a worry about people moving from employment to self-employment as it tends to reduce tax revenues. Not only will considerably less NIC be paid by previous employers, but the scope for tax evasion is greater in self-employment. There is thus a trade-off between the extra output and small-scale investment that self-employment might bring and the lower NIC/tax revenue for the government.
Thriving in the gig economy Philippine Daily Inquirer, Michael Baylosis (10/3/17)
6 charts that show how the ‘gig economy’ has changed Britain – and why it’s not a good thing Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (21/2/17)
What is the ‘gig’ economy? BBC News, Bill Wilson (10/2/17)
Great Freelance, Contract and Part-Time Jobs for 2017 CareerCast (10/3/17)
We have the laws for a fairer gig economy, we just need to enforce them The Guardian, Stefan Stern (7/2/17)
The gig economy will finally have to give workers the rights they deserve Independent, Ben Chu (12/2/17)
Gig economy chiefs defend business model BBC News (22/2/17)
Spring Budget 2017 tax rise: What’s the fuss about? BBC News, Kevin Peachey (9/3/17)
Self-employed hit by national insurance hike in budget The Guardian, Simon Goodley and Heather Stewart (8/3/17)
What national insurance is – and where it goes The Conversation, Jonquil Lowe (10/3/17)
Britain’s tax raid on gig economy misses the mark Reuters, Carol Ryan (9/3/17)
Economics collides with politics in Philip Hammond’s budget The Economist (9/3/17)
UK government publications
Contract types and employer responsibilities – 5. Freelancers, consultants and contractors GOV.UK
Spring Budget 2017 GOV.UK (8/3/17)
Spring Budget 2017: documents HM Treasury (8/3/17)
National Insurance contributions (NICs) HMRC and HM Treasury (8/3/17)
- Give some examples of work which is generally or frequently done in the gig economy.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages to individuals from working in the gig economy?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages to firms from using the services of people in the gig economy rather than employing people?
- In the case of employed people, both the employees and the employers have to pay NICs. Would it be fair for both such elements to be paid by self-employed people on their own income?
- Discuss ways in which the government might tax the firms which buy the services of people in the gig economy.
- How does the rise of the gig economy affect the interpretation of unemployment statistics?
- What factors could cause a substantial growth in the gig economy over the coming years?
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?