Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.
But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.
The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.
The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.
The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.
Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.
The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.
UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)
Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
- How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
- Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
- Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
- Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
- What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
‘Employment has been strong, but productivity and real wages have been flat.’ This is one of the key observations in a new OECD report on the state of the UK economy. If real incomes for the majority of people are to be raised, then labour productivity must rise.
For many years, the UK has had a lower productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) than most other developed countries, with the exception of Japan. But from 1980 to the mid 2000s, the gap was gradually narrowing. Since then, however, the gap has been widening again. This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows countries’ productivity relative to the UK’s (with the UK set at 100). (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Compared with the UK, GDP per hour worked in 2013 (the latest data available) was 28% higher in France, 29% higher in Germany and 30% higher in the USA. What is more, GDP per hour worked and GDP per capita in the UK fell by 3.8% and 6.1% respectively after the financial crisis of 2007/8 (see the green and grey lines in Chart 2). And while both indicators began rising after 2009, they were still both below their 2007 levels in 2013. Average real wages also fell after 2007 but, unlike the other two indicators, kept on falling and by 2013 were 4% below their 2007 levels, as the red line in Chart 2 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)
Although productivity and even real wages are rising again, the rate of increase is slow. If productivity is to rise, there must be investment. This could be in physical capital, human capital or, preferably, both. But for many years the UK has had a lower rate of investment than other countries, as Chart 3 shows. (Click here for a PowerPoint.) This chart measures investment in fixed capital as a percentage of GDP.
So how can investment be encouraged? Faster growth will encourage greater investment through the accelerator effect, but such an effect could well be short-lived as firms seek to re-equip but may be cautious about committing to increasing capacity. What is crucial here is maintaining high degrees of business confidence over an extended period of time.
More fundamentally, there are structural problems that need tackling. One is the poor state of infrastructure. This is a problem not just in the UK, but in many developed countries, which cut back on public and private investment in transport, communications and energy infrastructure in an attempt to reduce government deficits after the financial crisis. Another is the low level of skills of many workers. Greater investment in training and apprenticeships would help here.
Then there is the question of access to finance. Although interest rates are very low, banks are cautious about granting long-term loans to business. Since the financial crisis banks have become much more risk averse and long-term loans, by their nature, are relatively risky. Government initiatives to provide finance to private companies may help here. For example the government has just announced a Help to Grow scheme which will provide support for 500 small firms each year through the new British Business Bank, which will provide investment loans and also grants on a match funding basis for new investment.
OECD: UK must fix productivity Economia, Oliver Griffin (25/2/15)
The UK’s productivity puzzle BBC News, Lina Yueh (24/2/15)
OECD warns UK must fix productivity problem to raise living standards The Guardian, Katie Allen (24/2/15)
Britain must boost productivity to complete post-crisis recovery, says OECD International Business Times, Ian Silvera (24/2/15)
OECD urges UK to loosen immigration controls on skilled workers Financial Times, Emily Cadman and Helen Warrell (24/2/15)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Overview OECD (February 2015)
OECD Economic Surveys, United Kingdom: Full report OECD (February 2015)
- In what ways can productivity be measured? What are the relative merits of using the different measures?
- Why has the UK’s productivity lagged behind other industrialised countries?
- What is the relationship between income inequality and labour productivity?
- Why has UK investment been lower than in other industrialised countries?
- What are zombie firms? How does the problem of zombie firms in the UK compare with that in other countries? Explain the differences.
- What policies can be pursued to increased labour productivity?
- What difficulties are there in introducing effective policies to tackle low productivity?
- Should immigration controls be lifted to tackle the problem of a shortage of skilled workers?