The recent pandemic has, and will have, serious implications for our economy with some estimating the largest drop in GDP ‘in living memory’. Expenditure from disposable income fell by 60% as social distancing policies were introduced and consumers started reducing their spending.
However, despite the impact being widespread across all sectors of the economy, workers in the gig economy are at a particular financial disadvantage. A report by Fintech firm, Portify, has found that income for self-employed gig workers fell 30% in the first two weeks of April, compared to the pre-crisis average. It is estimated that there will be a loss of £1.5bn through earnings and £6.9bn in economic contributions from gig economy workers.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced increased benefits for the self-employed at the daily briefing on March 20th but did not guarantee their wages. This has understandably left those people who are self-employed, e.g. freelancers, with greater uncertainty. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are 5 million self-employed people in the UK, who make up 15% of the labour market.
The government has been cautious over the financial support for the self-employed, because it is more difficult to confirm how much they are earning each month. However, many of the 5 million workers would have been among the first to be impacted by the closures and restrictions caused by the outbreak.
What is the ‘gig economy’?
The gig economy has grown significantly since the last global recession of 2008/9. After a substantial number of people lost their jobs, they turned towards self-employment. A boom in digital platforms, such as Uber and Deliveroo, has sparked a revolution in the world of work, with as many as one in 10 working-age adults now working in the gig economy, up from one in 20 in 2016. According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE), prior to the coronavirus outbreak, self-employed people contributed £305bn to the British economy.
A gig economy is where workers are paid for the ‘gigs’ they do, e.g. a parcel delivery or taxi ride. They receive the money for the completed job instead of a regular wage. In the UK it is estimated that 5 million people are employed in this type of capacity. Flexible hours and controlling the amount you work is appealing for many people wanting to manage their home life and other priorities.
In the gig economy, workers are classed as independent contractors. This is also beneficial for employers as they only need to pay their workers when there is work available. Therefore, when demand drops, they don’t have to get rid of staff or have to incur unnecessary staff costs. However, this also has its drawbacks for the worker. They have no protection against unfair dismissal, no right to redundancy payments, and no right to receive the national minimum wage, paid holiday or sickness pay.
Impact of the coronavirus on the gig economy
Anybody experiencing symptoms of the virus have been told to self-isolate. Employees who are then self-isolating can access statutory sick pay from the first day they are off. However, it is unclear if this applies to gig-economy workers. Unions that represent such workers have raised their concerns over the uncertainty and have demanded that urgent action is needed on working practices, including on sick pay. The United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD) union said:
Without access to worker rights such as minimum wage and sick pay, drivers who are infected may simply not be able to afford to stop working.
Work and Pensions Minister, Justin Tomlinson, has said that gig economy workers can apply for universal credit (which can take five weeks to come through) if they need to self-isolate. However, this is not an option for those who live hand-to-mouth. The government has indicated it wanted to do more for the self-employed but it is operationally difficult. Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, said:
The purpose of our employment mechanism is to help continue the connection between employees and their business so once this is over – and it will be over – those individuals can return to their usual work and that link isn’t broken.
However, six days after the Chancellor’s initial support package was announced, he announced a new self-employed income support scheme, which will cover up to 80% of self-employed workers’ average taxable monthly profits. This taxable grant is to be paid in a lump sum in June and will no doubt provide a vital lifeline for those workers who have seen their income disappear almost overnight.
Those who are eligible will receive a taxable grant amounting to 80% of the average profits from the last three tax years. HMRC will use the total trading profit for the last three tax years and use this to calculate a monthly amount. However, annual profits are taken after expenses and capital allowances, but before pension contributions and charitable donations. Therefore, workers who have made significant investments into their businesses are likely to lose out.
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents gig-economy workers, has announced that it is suing the government over its failure to protect the wages and jobs of millions of workers during the pandemic. It has also accused the government of failing to ensure the health and safety of those still employed through proper sick pay. It has also argued that the lack of certainty encourages those potentially infected to continue working so they can still receive a wage.
The current scheme is only planned to cover the next three months. However, it is questionable whether this will be enough, and the government may have to extend the support.
There is also concern around how much of the gig economy (besides delivery and distribution workers) will remain once the restrictions are eased. Ryan Barnett, an IPSE economist predicts the economic impact to be far more severe than the 2008 financial crisis, pointing out that many entertainment industry workers have already had jobs cancelled until the end of 2021. Even when we can re-emerge from the current lockdown, it is likely that many workers will continue to rely on Universal Credit for a prolonged period of time.
There is no doubt that the current situation has had an impact on the daily lives of everyone in the economy. However, the level of uncertainty for those working in the gig economy has been concerning for many of the 5 million people.
The full impact of the crisis will not be known until some time after the lockdown. However, it is what measures are put in place in the short run that will have an impact and provide a greater level of certainty for the self-employed. It is important that the government understands the importance of supporting self-employment throughout the crisis, as the self-employed will likely play a key role in the economic activity and recovery that will follow.
- Explain why many economies have seen an increase in the gig economy over the last decade.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a gig economy?
- How does the gig economy impact on the flexibility of the labour market in the UK?
The issue of inequality has come into increasing focus over recent years. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic raises further concerns that these inequalities may be exacerbated further. Here we provide an overview of some of the key patterns in current levels of wealth and income inequality in Britain. They show, for example, the markedly higher degree of inequality in wealth relative to income, the importance of property wealth and private pension wealth in determining levels of wealth, and the considerable variation in average wealth levels of households by age and location.
According to the 6th round of the Wealth and Assets Survey the aggregate wealth of British households was £14.63 trillion in April 2016 to March 2018. This compares with £12.57 trillion in the previous survey which ran from April 2014 to March 2016. This amounts to a 16.3 per cent nominal increase. In real terms, after adjusting for consumer price inflation, the increase was 13.1 per cent. Furthermore, when compared with the first round of the survey in July 2006 to June 2008, there has been a nominal increase in the aggregate wealth of British households of 74 per cent and a real increase of 41 per cent.
What is wealth?
An important question to ask when reflecting on the growth and distribution of wealth across households is what wealth comprises. In fact, it comprises one of four components:
- Net Financial wealth – the value of financial assets (savings and financial investments) less any financial liabilities (loans and arrears)
- Physical wealth – the value of household contents, possessions, valuables and vehicles
- Private pension wealth – the value of private pensions, such as occupational pensions and personal pensions
- Net property wealth – the value of any property owned (including other land/properties owned abroad) less the value of any loans or mortgages secured on these properties.
Figure 1 shows the evolution of aggregate wealth over the last two surveys (at constant 2016-18 prices) by the four component parts. Two components dominate the aggregate wealth of British households: property wealth (35 per cent) and private pension wealth (41-42 per cent). Financial wealth is the third largest component (14 per cent), while property wealth is the smallest component (9 to 10 per cent). (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Trends in the average wealth of households
To help contextualise the size of wealth and begin to think about its distribution, rather than look at aggregate household wealth we can instead look at the average wealth of British households.
Figure 2 shows the average wealth (at constant 2016-18 prices) as measured by the mean (aggregate divided by the number of households) and the median (the middle household). The mean wealth of households is seen to be greater than their median wealth. In April 2016 to March 2018, average wealth as measured by the mean was £564,300 (an increase of 40.3 per cent over July 2006 to June 2008), whilst the average wealth of each household as measured by the median was £286,600 (an increase of 28.5 per cent over July 2006 to June 2008). (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The higher mean value of wealth relative to the median value shows that the distribution of wealth is unequal. Therefore, the mean-to-median ratio is an indicator of inequality. In April 2016 to March 2018 the mean-to-median ratio was 1.97, up from 1.94 in April 2014 to March 2016 and 1.77 in July 2008 to June 2010, and 1.8 in the first survey in July 2006 to June 2008. This metric is therefore consistent with a more unequal distribution of wealth having arisen since the second survey in July 2008 to June 2010, a period during which the UK and global economy was been buffeted by the effects of the financial crisis and the associated economic downturn.
Trends in the average income of households
Figure 3 shows the mean and median values of disposable income (adjusted for the number and age of individuals comprising each household). Mean disposable income of UK households in financial year ending (FYE) 2018 was £35,928, a 0.5 per cent real decrease over FYE 2017, whilst median wealth (middle household) was £29,598 in FYE 2018, a 1.5 per cent real increase over FYE 2017. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The higher mean value of disposable income relative to the median value is indicative of inequality in disposable income. In FYE 2018 the mean-to-median ratio for disposable income was 1.21, down from 1.24 in FYE 2017 and a peak of 1.27 in FYE 2014, but higher than the 1.10 in 1978. The longer-term growth in the inequality of income helps to exacerbate existing wealth inequalities.
Comparing the inequality of income and wealth
Figure 4 shows starkly the current inequality in wealth as compared to that in income. It does so by plotting their respective Lorenz curves. The curves show the proportion of overall wealth or income attributable to a given proportion of households. For example, 50 per cent of households have close to 28 per cent of total disposable income and a mere 8.5 per cent of aggregate wealth. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The inequality shown by the Lorenz curves is especially startling when we look at the top and bottom deciles. The bottom decile has just 2.9 per cent of income and only 0.07 per cent of wealth. Meanwhile the top 10 per cent of households have 28.5 per cent of income, almost the same as the first 50 percent of households, and some 44.6 per cent of wealth, with the previous 90 per cent of households having 55.4 per cent of wealth.
The Lorenz curves allow for the calculation of the Gini coefficient. It measures the area between the Lorenz curve and the 45 degree line consistent with zero inequality relative to the total area below the 45 degree line. Therefore, the Gini coefficient can take a value of between 0% (no inequality) and 100% (total inequality – where one person has all the wealth). Unsurprisingly whilst the Gini coefficient for disposable income in the UK in FYE 2018 was 34.7 per cent, that for aggregate wealth in Great Britain in April 2016 to March 2018 was significantly higher at 63.3 per cent.
The Gini coefficient for disposable income has risen from 25.5 per cent in 1977 to a peak in FYE 2008 of 38.6 per cent. It has therefore eased during the 2010s, but is nonetheless 13 percentage points higher today than it was four decades ago. Meanwhile, the Gini coefficient for wealth at the time of the first survey from July 2006 to June 2008 was 61 per cent. It has been unchanged at 63 percent over the last three surveys.
Inequality in wealth by component, location and age
It is important to recognise the inequalities in the components of wealth. This has particular importance when we are trying to understand how wealth varies by household characteristics, such as age and location.
Figure 5 shows that the highest Gini coefficient is for net financial wealth. This stood at 91 per cent in April 2016 to March 2018. This extremely high figure shows the very high levels of inequatity in net financial wealth. This reflects the fact that some households find themselves with negative net financial wealth, such that their debts exceed their assets, whilst, on the other hand, some households can have large sums in financial investments. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
We saw at the outset that the largest two components of wealth are property wealth and private pension wealth. The Gini coefficients of these two have in recent times moved in opposite directions by roughly similar magnitudes. This means that their effects on the overall Gini coefficient have offset one another. Perhaps for many people the rise in Gini coeffcient for property from 62 per cent in July 2006 to June 2008 to 66 per cent in April 2016 to March 2018 is the inequality measure that resonates most. This is reflected in regional disparities in wealth.
Figure 6 shows the geographical disparity of median household wealth across Britain. The regions with the highest median wealth are the South East, South West, London and the East of England. They have the highest contributions from net property wealth (40.4 per cent, 35.6 per cent, 41.7 per cent and 37.2 per cent respectively). The region with the lowest median total wealth, the North East, has the least total wealth in net property wealth (24.8 per cent). (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
Property wealth and private pension wealth also contribute to disparities in wealth by the age of the head of the household, also known as the household reference person or HRP. In April 2016 to March 2018 the mean wealth where the HRP is 25-34 was £125,700, rising to £859,200 where the HRP is 55-64 and then falling to £692,300 when the HRP is 65 or over. This is consistent with households accruing wealth over time and the using wealth to help fund retirement.
Where the age of the HRP is 55-64, mean property wealth in April 2016 to March 2018 was £255,800 compared to £53,700 where the HRP is 25-34. Meanwhile, where the age of the HRP is 55-64, mean private pension wealth was £449,100 compared to just £32,300 where the HRP is 25-34. In respect of property wealth, the deterioration in the affordability of owner-occupied housing over many years will impact especially hard on younger households. This will therefore tend to exacerbate inter-generational wealth inequality.
Whilst this briefing provides an overview of recent patterns in income and wealth inequality in Britain, the articles and press releases below consider the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic may have on inequalities.
Articles and Press Releases
- Many better-off households may increase savings as spending on ‘banned’ activities falls. Poorer households spend much more of their income on necessities and will be less resilient to any falls in income
IFS Press Release, Rowena Crawford, Alex Davenport, Robert Joyce and Peter Levell (08/04/20)
- Sector shut-downs during the coronavirus crisis affect the youngest and lowest paid workers, and women, the most
IFS Press Release, Robert Joyce and Xiaowei Xu (06/04/20)
- Coronavirus downturn ‘will exacerbate UK health inequality’
City A.M., James Warrington (09/04/20)
- Coronavirus pandemic exacerbates inequalities for women, UN warns
Guardian, Alexandra Villarreal (11/04/20)
- Inequality doesn’t just make pandemics worse – it could cause them
Guardian, Laura Spinney (12/04/20)
- The Coronavirus Will Be a Catastrophe for the Poor
The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (20/03/20)
- EU-wide inequality is back to pre-crisis levels
Social Europe, Michael Dauderstädt (15/04/20)
- Coronavirus makes inequality a public health issue
World Economic Forum, Alexandre Kalache (President, International Longevity Centre-Brazil) (13/04/20)
- Economist Joseph Stiglitz says coronavirus is ‘exposing’ health inequality in US
- CNBC, Jesse Pound (14/04/20)
- In what ways can we use statistics to help measure and inform our analysis of inequality?
- In what ways can income inequality impact on wealth inequality?
- How can wealth inequality impact on income inequality?
- What might explain why wealth inequality is greater than income inequality?
- Explain how Lorenz curves help to generate Gini coefficients.
- Why would we expect the wealth of households with a younger household reference person (HRP) to be lower than that of a household with an older HRP? Would we expect this average to rise over all age ranges?
- If you were advising a government on policies to reduce income and wealth inequalities what sort of measures might you suggest?
- What is the difference between original income and disposable income?
- What is the difference between disposable income and equivalised disposable income?
- What role does the housing market play in affecting wealth inequality?
- Why is net financial wealth so unequally distributed?
- What is meant by health inequality? Of what significance is this for income and wealth inequality?
- What is meant by social mobility? Of what significance is this for income and wealth inequality?
The government has announced outlines of the new system of immigration controls from January 2021 when the Brexit transition period is scheduled to finish. It plans to introduce an Australian-style points-based system. This will apply to all EU and Non-EU citizens. The aim is to attract skilled workers, while preventing non-skilled or low-skilled workers from entering the UK for employment.
But even skilled workers will need to meet three criteria in order to obtain a work visa: (i) having the offer of a job paying a minimum of £25,600 per annum, except in designated jobs where there is a shortage of labour; (ii) being able to speak English; (iii) having qualifications equivalent to A levels.
To apply for a work visa, applicants must have at least 70 points according to the following table:
In certain jobs where there is a shortage of labour, designated by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), immigrants will be able to earn a lower income, provided it is above £20,480 per annum. They will earn 20 points for such jobs, which can offset not meeting the £25,600 threshold. Such jobs could include those in healthcare and farming. There will also be temporary visas for seasonal workers, such as fruit pickers.
The government argues that the new system will encourage employers to substitute technology for labour, with greater investment in equipment and computers. This would increase labour productivity and wages without reducing employment.
This is illustrated in the diagram, which illustrates a low-paid job which will be impacted by the restrictions. If there is a rise in productivity through technological change, the marginal revenue product of labour curve shifts upwards from MRPL1 to MRPL2 and offsets the leftward shift in labour supply (caused by the decline in immigration) from ACL1 to ACL2 and the marginal cost of labour from MCL1 to MCL2. Employment is where the marginal cost of labour equals the marginal revenue product of labour. This remains at Q1. Wages are given by the supply curve of labour and rise from W1 to W1. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the diagram.)
Even if the upward shift in the MRPL curve is not sufficient to offset the leftward shift in the labour supply curve, wages will still rise, but there will be a fall in employment.
In higher-paid skilled jobs where people meet the points requirement, there will be little effect on wages and employment, except where people are generally discouraged by a points system, even if they have the points themselves.
The government also argues that there is a large pool of UK residents who can take up jobs that would otherwise have been filled by immigrants. The Home Secretary referred to the 8.48 million people who are economically inactive who could fill jobs no longer filled by immigrants. However, as the data show, most of these people are not available for work. Some 2.3 million are students, 1.9 million are carers at home looking after relatives, 2.1 million are long-term sick and 1.1 million are retired. Only 1.9 million (22.1% of the economically inactive) would like a job and not all these would be able to take up one (e.g. the long-term sick).
One the biggest problems concerns low-paid sectors where it is very difficult to substitute capital for labour through use of technology. Examples include social care, health care, the leisure and hospitality industry and certain jobs in farming. There could be severe shortages of labour in such industries. It remains to be seen whether such industries will be given exemptions or more relaxed conditions by the government in line with advice from the Migration Advisory Committee.
More details will emerge of the points system in the coming months. It will be interesting to see how responsive the government will be to the concerns of employers and workers.
- Find out how the proposed points-based system for immigration differs from the current system that applies to non-EU citizens.
- What will be the likely impact of reducing immigration of unskilled and low-skilled people?
- What barriers are there to substituting capital for labour in the caring and leisure sectors?
- What would be the macroeconomic effects of a substantial reduction in immigration?
Economists are often criticised for making inaccurate forecasts and for making false assumptions. Their analysis is frequently dismissed by politicians when it contradicts their own views.
But is this fair? Have economists responded to the realities of the global economy and to the behaviour of people, firms, institutions and government as they respond to economic circumstances? The answer is a qualified yes.
Behavioural economics is increasingly challenging the simple assumption that people are ‘rational’, in the sense that they maximise their self interest by weighing up the marginal costs and benefits of alternatives open to them. And macroeconomic models are evolving to take account of a range of drivers of global growth and the business cycle.
The linked article and podcast below look at the views of 2019 Nobel Prize-winning economist Esther Duflo. She has challenged some of the traditional assumptions of economics about the nature of rationality and what motivates people. But her work is still very much in the tradition of economists. She examines evidence and sees how people respond to incentives and then derives policy implications from the analysis.
Take the case of the mobility of labour. She examines why people who lose their jobs may not always move to a new one if it’s in a different town. Partly this is for financial reasons – moving is costly and housing may be more expensive where the new job is located. Partly, however, it is for reasons of identity. Many people are attached to where they currently live. They may be reluctant to leave family and friends and familiar surroundings and hope that a new job will turn up – even if it means a cut in wages. This is not irrational; it just means that people are driven by more than simply wages.
Duflo is doing what economists typically do – examining behaviour in the light of evidence. In her case, she is revisiting the concept of rationality to take account of evidence on what motivates people and the way they behave.
In the light of workers’ motivation, she considers the implications for the gains from trade. Is free trade policy necessarily desirable if people lose their jobs because of cheap imports from China and other developing countries where labour costs are low?
The answer is not a clear yes or no, as import-competing industries are only part of the story. If protectionist policies are pursued, other countries may retaliate with protectionist policies themselves. In such cases, people working in the export sector may lose their jobs.
She also looks at how people may respond to a rise or cut in tax rates. Again the answer is not clear cut and an examination of empirical evidence is necessary to devise appropriate policy. Not only is there an income and substitution effect from tax changes, but people are motivated to work by factors other than take-home pay. Likewise, firms are encouraged to invest by factors other than the simple post-tax profitability of investment.
- In traditional ‘neoclassical’ economics, what is meant by ‘rationality’ in terms of (a) consumer behaviour; (b) producer behaviour?
- How might the concept of rationality be expanded to take into account a whole range of factors other than the direct costs and benefits of a decision?
- What is meant by bounded rationality?
- What would be the effect on workers’ willingness to work more or fewer hours as a result of a cut in the marginal income tax rate if (a) the income effect was greater than the substitution effect; (b) the substitution effect was greater than the income effect? Would your answers to (a) and (b) be the opposite in the case of a rise in the marginal income tax rate?
- Give some arguments that you consider to be legitimate for imposing controls on imports in (a) the short run; (b) the long run. How might you counter these arguments from a free-trade perspective?
The linked article below, by Evan Davis, assesses the state of economics. He argues that economics has had some major successes over the years in providing a framework for understanding how economies function and how to increase incomes and well-being more generally.
Over the last few decades, economists have …had an influence over every aspect of our lives. …And during this era in which economists have reigned, the world has notched up some marked successes. The reduction in the proportion of human beings living in abject poverty over the last thirty years has been extraordinary.
With the development of concepts such as opportunity cost, the prisoners’ dilemma, comparative advantage and the paradox of thrift, economics has helped to shape the way policymakers perceive economic issues and policies.
These concepts are ‘threshold concepts’. Understanding and being able to relate and apply these core economic concepts helps you to ‘think like an economist’ and to relate the different parts of the subject to each other. Both Economics (10th edition) and Essentials of Economics (8th edition) examine 15 of these threshold concepts. Each time a threshold concept is used in the text, a ‘TC’ icon appears in the margin with the appropriate number. By locating them in this way, you can see their use in a variety of contexts.
But despite the insights provided by traditional economics into the various problems that society faces, the discipline of economics has faced criticism, especially since the financial crisis, which most economists did not foresee.
Even Davis identifies two major shortcomings of the discipline – both beginning with ‘C’. ‘One is complexity, the other is community.’
In terms of complexity, the criticism is that economic models are often based on simplistic assumptions, such as ‘rational maximising behaviour’. This might make it easier to express the models mathematically, but mathematical elegance does not necessarily translate into predictive accuracy. Such models do not capture the ‘messiness’ of the real world.
These models have a certain theoretical elegance but there is now an increasing sense that economies do not evolve along a well-defined mathematical path, but in a far more messy way. The individual players within the economy face radical uncertainty; they adapt and learn as they go; they watch what everybody else does. The economy stumbles along in a process of slow discovery, full of feedback loops.
As far as ‘community’ is concerned, people do not just act as self-interested individuals. Their actions are often governed by how other people behave and also by how their own actions will affect other people, such as family, friends, colleagues or society more generally.
And the same applies to firms. They will be influenced by various other firms, such as competitors, trend setters and suppliers and also by a range of stakeholders – not just shareholders, but also workers, customers, local communities, etc. A firm’s aim is thus unlikely to be simple short-term profit maximisation.
And this broader set of interests translates into policy. The neoliberal free-market, laissez-faire approach to policy is challenged by the desire to take account of broader questions of equity, community and social justice. However privately efficient a free market is, it does not take account of the full social and environmental costs and benefits of firms’ and consumers’ actions or a fair distribution of income and wealth.
It would be wrong, however, to say that economics has not responded to these complexities and concerns. The analysis of externalities, income distribution, incentives, herd behaviour, uncertainty, speculation, cumulative causation and institutional values and biases are increasingly embedded in the economics curriculum and in economic research. What is more, behavioural economics is becoming increasingly mainstream in examining the behaviour of consumers, workers, firms and government. We have tried to reflect these developments in successive editions of our four textbooks.
- Write a brief defence of traditional economic analysis (i.e. that based on the assumption of ‘rational economic behaviour’).
- What are the shortcomings of traditional economic analysis?
- What is meant by ‘behavioural economics’ and how does it address the concerns raised in Evan Davis’ article?
- How is herd behaviour relevant to explaining macroeconomic fluctuations?
- Identify various stakeholder groups of an energy company. What influence are they likely to have on the company’s behaviour?
- In an era of social media, web-based information and e-commerce, why might it be necessary to rethink the concept of GDP and its measurement?
- What is meant by an efficient stock market? Why may the stock market not be efficient?