Since the financial crisis of 2008–9, the UK has experienced the lowest growth in productivity for the past 250 years. This is the conclusion of a recent paper published in the National Institute Economics Review. Titled, Is the UK Productivity Slowdown Unprecedented, the authors, Nicholas Crafts of the University of Sussex and Terence C Mills of Loughborough University, argue that ‘the current productivity slowdown has resulted in productivity being 19.7 per cent below the pre-2008 trend path in 2018. This is nearly double the previous worst productivity shortfall ten years after the start of a downturn.’
According to ONS figures, productivity (output per hour worked) peaked in 2007 Q4. It did not regain this level until 2011 Q1 and by 2019 Q3 was still only 2.4% above the 2007 Q4 level. This represents an average annual growth rate over the period of just 0.28%. By contrast, the average annual growth rate of productivity for the 35 years prior to 2007 was 2.30%.
The chart illustrates this and shows the productivity gap, which is the amount by which output per hour is below trend output per hour from 1971 to 2007. By 2019 Q3 this gap was 27.5%. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) Clearly, this lack of growth in productivity over the past 12 years has severe implications for living standards. Labour productivity is a key determinant of potential GDP, which, in turn, is the major limiter of actual GDP.
Crafts and Mills explore the reasons for this dramatic slowdown in productivity. They identify three primary reasons.
The first is a slowdown in the impact of developments in ICT on productivity. The office and production revolutions that developments in computing and its uses had brought about have now become universal. New developments in ICT are now largely in terms of greater speed of computing and greater sophistication of software. Perhaps with an acceleration in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics, productivity growth may well increase in the relatively near future (see third article below).
The second cause is the prolonged impact of the banking crisis, with banks more cautious about lending and firms more cautious about borrowing for investment. What is more, the decline in investment directly impacts on potential output, and layoffs or restructuring can leave people with redundant skills. There is a hysteresis effect.
The third cause identified by Crafts and Mills is Brexit. Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding it has resulted in a decline in investment and ‘a diversion of top-management time towards Brexit planning and a relative shrinking of highly-productive exporters compared with less productive domestically orientated firms’.
- How suitable is output (GDP) per hour as a measure of labour productivity?
- Compare this measure of productivity with other measures.
- According to Crafts and Mills, what is the size of the impact of each of their three explanations of the productivity slowdown?
- Would you expect the growth in productivity to return to pre-2007 levels over the coming years? Explain.
- Explain the underlying model for obtaining trend productivity growth rates used by Crafts and Mills.
- Explain and comment on each of the six figures in the Crafts and Mills paper.
- What policies should the government adopt to increase productivity growth?
A lack of productivity growth has been a major problem for the UK economy over the past decade (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Is it possible that the new decade may see a pick-up in the growth in output per hour worked?
One possible solution to low productivity growth is to reduce working hours and even to move to a four-day week, but not to reduce total pay. If people work fewer hours, they may well be more productive in the hours they do work. In fact, not only may output per hour increase, but so too may output per worker, despite fewer hours being worked. What is more, the quality of output may increase with people being less tired and more motivated.
Several companies have experimented with a four-day week, including Microsoft in Japan, which employees 2300 workers. It found that, despite a 20% reduction in hours worked, output per hour worked increased by 40%, with total output thereby increasing. Workers were generally happier and more motivated and asked for fewer days off.
And it is not just a question of output: fewer hours can result in lower costs. The effect on costs will depend on the nature of new work patterns, including whether everyone has the same extra day off.
But a four-day week is only one way of cutting working hours for full-time employees. Another is to reduce the length of the working day. The argument is that people may work more efficiently if the standard working day is cut from eight to, say, five hours. As the first Thrive Global article article (linked below) states:
Just because you’re at your desk for eight hours doesn’t mean you’re being productive. Even the best employees probably only accomplish two to three hours of actual work. The five-hour day is about managing human energy more efficiently by working in bursts over a shorter period.
If people have more leisure time, this could provide a boost to the leisure and other industries. According to a Henley Business School study:
An extra day off could have a knock-on effect for the wider society. We found 54% of employees said they would spend their day shopping, meaning a potential boost for the high street, 43% would go to the cinema or theatre and 39% would eat out at restaurants.
What is more, many people would be likely to use the extra time productively, undertaking training, volunteering or other socially useful activities. Also family life is likely to improve, with people spending less time at work and commuting and having more time for their partners, children, other relatives and friends. In addition, people’s physical and mental health is likely to improve as they achieve a better work-life balance.
So, should firms be encouraged to reduce hours for full-time workers with no loss of pay? Many firms may need no encouragement at all if they can see from the example of others that it is in their interests. But many firms may find it difficult, especially if their suppliers and/or customers are sticking with ‘normal’ working hours and want to do business during those hours. But, over time, as more firms move in this direction, so it will become increasingly in the interests of others to follow suit.
In the meantime, should the government introduce incentives (such as tax breaks) or regulations to limit the working week? Indeed, it was part of the Labour manifesto for the December 2019 election that the country should, over time, move to a four-day week. Although this was a long-term goal, it would probably have involved the use of some incentives to encourage employers to move in that direction or the gradual introduction of limits on the number of hours or days per week that people could work in a particular job. It is unlikely that the new Conservative government will introduce any specific measures, but would probably not want to discourage firms from reducing working hours, especially if it is accompanied by increased output per worker.
But despite the gains, there are some problems with reduced working hours. Many small businesses, such as shops, restaurants and firms offering technical support, may not have the flexibility to offer reduced hours, or may find it hard to increase productivity when there is a specific amount of work that needs doing, such as serving customers.
Another problem concerns businesses where the output of individuals is not easy to measure because they are part of a team. Reducing hours or the working week may not make such people work harder if they can ‘get way with it’. Not everyone is likely to be motivated by fewer hours to work harder.
Then there is the problem if reduced hours don’t work in boosting productivity. It may then be very difficult to reintroduce longer hours.
But, despite these problems, there are many firms where substantial gains in productivity could be made by restructuring work in a way that reduces hours worked. We may see more and more examples as the decade progresses.
- Economics of a four-day working week: research shows it can save businesses mone
The Conversation, Miriam Marra (11/11/19)
- Less hours for work, more time on Earth: Why a four-day working week is good for you
Independent, Steve Taylor (16/12/19)
- Microsoft Japan Launched A Four-Day Workweek To Much Success: Is This The Key To Attracting Talent In The Tight U.S. Job Market?
Forbes, Jack Kelly (5/11/19)
- Will The Five-Hour Work Day Catch On In America?
Forbes, Jack Kelly (28/10/19)
- My Company Implemented a 5-Hour Workday — and the Results Have Been Astounding
Thrive Global, Stephan Aarstol (3/10/19)
- Why Does a Four-Day Work Week Achieve Better Results?
Thrive Global, Stephanie Lin (16/12/19)
- Four-Day Working Week Improves Staff’s Mental Health By 87%, Company Finds
Unilad, Niamh Shackleton (10/12/19)
- Hull business launches four-day working week as well as your birthday off and ‘Beer Fridays’
Hull Live, Phil Winter (5/12/19)
- A four-day work week? Sounds nice, but here’s the real deal
Sydney Morning Herald, Tony Featherstone (21/11/19)
- The four-day debate: Fantasy or feasible?
The Hindu, Business Live, Kamal Karanth (20/11/19)
- Finland’s ministry of transport floats tech-enabled four-day week
Computer Weekly, Gerard O’Dwyer (20/11/19)
- Should You Consider a 4 Day Work Week?
Small Business Trends, Rob Starr (5/12/19)
- Distinguish between different ways of measuring labour productivity.
- Give some examples (from the linked references) of employers which have tried introducing a four-day week or reduced hours for full-time workers. What has been the outcome in each case?
- In what ways may reducing working hours reduce a firm’s total costs?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of the government imposing (at some point in the future) a maximum working week or a four-day week?
- What types of firm might struggle in introducing a four-day week or a substantially reduced number of hours for full-time employees?
- What external benefits and costs might arise from a shorter working week?
In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.
Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).
In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.
Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).
But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.
As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.
Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.
But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.
The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.
The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.
The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.
The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.
The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.
Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.
UK productivity lagging well behind G7 peers – ONS Financial Times, Katie Martin (6/10/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
UK resigned to endless productivity gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/10/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (10/10/17)
UK productivity growth to remain sluggish, says OBR BBC News (10/10/17)
Official Treasury forecaster slashes UK productivity growth forecast, signalling hole in public finances for November Budget Independent, Ben Chu (10/10/17)
The Guardian view on Britain’s productive forces: they are not working The Guardian, Editorial (10/10/17)
Mind the productivity gap: the story behind sluggish earnings The Telegraph, Anna Isaac (26/10/17)
Data and statistical analysis
Labour productivity: April to June 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (6/10/17)
International comparisons of productivity ONS Dataset (6/10/17)
Forecast evaluation report OBR (October 2017)
- Explain the relationship between labour productivity and potential GDP.
- What is the relationship between actual growth in GDP and labour productivity?
- Why does the UK lag France and Germany more in output per hour than in output per worker, but the USA more in output per worker than in output per hour?
- Is there anything about the UK system of financing investment that results in lower investment than in other developed countries?
- Why are firms reluctant to invest?
- In what ways could public investment increase productivity?
- What measures would you recommend to encourage greater investment and why?
- How do expectations affect the growth in labour productivity?
UK productivity growth remains well below levels recorded before the financial crisis, as Chart 1 illustrates. In fact, output per hour worked in 2016 Q3 was virtually the same as in 2007 Q4. What is more, as can be seen from Chart 2, UK productivity lags well behind its major competitors (except for Japan).
But why does UK productivity lag behind other countries and why has it grown so slowly since the financial crisis? In its July 2015 analysis, the ONS addressed this ‘productivity puzzle’.
Among the many reasons suggested are low levels of investment, the impact of the financial crisis on bank’s willingness to lend to new businesses, higher numbers of people working beyond normal retirement age as a result of population and pensions changes, and firms’ ability to retain staff because of low pay growth. While these and other factors may be relevant, they do not provide a complete explanation for the weakness in productivity.
The lack of investment in technology and lack of infrastructure investment have been key reasons for the sluggish growth in productivity. Many companies are prepared to continue using relatively labour-intensive techniques because wage growth has been so low and this reduces the incentive to invest in labour-saving technology.
Another factor has been long hours and, for many office workers, being constantly connected to their work, checking and responding to emails and messages away from the office. The Telegraph article below reports Ann Francke, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, as saying:
“This is having a deleterious effect on the health of managers, which has a direct impact on productivity. UK workers already have the longest hours in Europe and yet we’re less productive.”
Another problem has been ultra low interest rates, which have reduced the burden of debt for poor performing companies and has allowed them to survive. It may also have prevented finance from being reallocated to more dynamic companies which would like to develop new products and processes.
Another feature of UK productivity is the large differences between regions. This is illustrated in Chart 3. Productivity in London in 2015 (the latest full year for data) was 31.5% above the UK average, while that in Wales was 19.4% below.
This again reflects investment patterns and also the concentration of industries in particular locations. Thus London’s financial sector, a major part of London’s economy, has experienced relatively large increases in productivity and this has helped to push productivity growth in the capital well above other parts of the country.
Another factor, which again has a regional dimension, is the poor productivity performance of family-owned businesses, where ownership and management is passed down the generations within the family without bringing in external managerial expertise.
The government is very aware of the UK’s weak productivity performance. Its recently launched industrial policy is designed to address the problem. We look at that in a separate post.
UK productivity edges up but growth still flounders below pre-crisis levels The Telegraph, Julia Bradshaw (6/1/17)
Weak UK productivity spurs warnings of living standards squeeze The Guardian, Katie Allen (6/1/17)
Productivity gap yawns across the UK BBC News, Jonty Bloom (6/1/17)
The UK productivity puzzle Fund Strategy. John Redwood (26/1/17)
Productivity puzzle remains for economists despite UK growth in third quarter of 2016 City A.M., Jasper Jolly (6/1/17)
Solve the Productivity Puzzle Unipart
Productivity: no puzzle about it TUC (Feb 2015)
Labour Productivity: Tables 1 to 10 and R1 ONS (6/1/17)
International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP) ONS (6/10/16)
Gross capital formation (% of GDP) The World Bank
- In measuring productivity, the ONS uses three indicators: output per worker, output per hour and output per job. Compare the relative usefulness of these three measures of productivity.
- How would you explain the marked difference in productivity between regions and cities within the UK?
- How do flexible labour markets impact on productivity?
- Why is investment as a percentage of GDP so low in the UK compared to that in most other developed countries (see)?
- Give some examples of industrial policy measures that could be adopted to increase productivity growth.
- Examine the extent to which very low interest rates and quantitative easing encourage productivity-enhancing investment.
Productivity has been a bit of a problem for the UK economy for a number of years. Earlier posts from 2015 have discussed the trend in Tackling the UK’s poor productivity and The UK’s poor productivity record. Although the so-called ‘productivity gap’ has been targeted by the government, with George Osborne promising to take steps to encourage more long-term investment in infrastructure and create better incentives for businesses to improve productivity, the latest data suggest that the problem remains.
The ONS has found that the UK continues to lag behind the other members of the G7, but perhaps more concerning is that the gap has grown to its biggest since 1991. The data showed that output per hour worked was 20 percentage points lower in the UK than the average for the other G7 countries. The economic downturn did cause falls in productivity, but the UK has not recovered as much as other advanced nations. One of the reasons, according to the Howard Archer, chief UK economist at IHS Global Insight is that it ‘had been held back since the financial crisis by the creation of lots of low-skilled, low-paid jobs’. These are the jobs where productivity is lowest and this may be causing the productivity gap to expand. Other cited reasons include the lack of investment which Osborne is attempting to address, fewer innovations and problems of finance.
Despite these rather dis-heartening data, there are some signs that things have begun to turn around. In the first quarter of 2015, output per hour worked did increase at the fastest annual growth rate in 3 years and Howard Archer confirmed that this did show ‘clear sign that UK productivity is now seeing much-needed improvement.’ There are other signs that we should be optimistic, delivered by the Bank of England. Sir John Cunliffe, Deputy Governor for financial stability said:
“firms have a greater incentive to find efficiency gains and to switch away from more labour-intensive forms of production. This should boost productivity.”
The reason given for this optimism is the increase in the real cost of labour relative to the cost of investment. So, a bit of a mixed picture here. UK productivity remains a cause for concern and given its importance in improving living standards, the Conservative government will be keen to demonstrate that its policies are closing the productivity gap. The latest data is more promising, but that still leaves a long way to go. The following articles consider this data and news.
UK productivity shortfall at record high Financial Times, Emily Cadman (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags behind rest of 7 BBC News (17/9/15)
UK’s poor productivity figures show challenge for the government The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/9/15)
UK productivity lags G7 peers in 2014-ONS Reuters (18/9/15)
UK productivity second lowest in G7 Fresh Business Thinking, Jonathan Davies (18/9/15)
UK is 33% less productive than Germany Economia (18/9/15)
UK productivity is in the G7 ‘slow lane’ Sky News (18/9/15)
AMECO Database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
Labour Productivity, Q1 2015 ONS (1/7/15)
International Comparisons of Productivity, 2014 – First Estimates ONS (18/9/15)
- How could we measure productivity?
- Why should we be optimistic about productivity if the real cost of labour is rising?
- If jobs are being created at slower rate and the economy is still expanding, why does this suggest that productivity is rising? What does it suggest about pay?
- Why is a rise in productivity needed to improve living standards?