Figures for employment and unemployment give an incomplete picture of the state of the labour market. Just because a person is employed, that does not mean that they are working the number of hours they would like.
Some people would like to work more hours, either by working more hours in their current job, or by switching to an alternative job with more hours or by taking on an additional part-time job. Such people are classed as ‘underemployed’. On average, underemployed workers wanted to work an additional 11.3 hours per week in 2014 Q2. Underemployment is a measure of slack in the labour market, but it is not picked up in the unemployment statistics.
Other people would like to work fewer hours (at the same hourly rate), but feel they have no choice – usually because their employer demands that they work long hours. Some, however, would like to change to another job with fewer hours even if it involved less pay. People willing to sacrifice pay in order to work fewer hours are classed as ‘overemployed’.
Statistics released by the Office for National Statistics show that, in April to June 2014, 9.9%, or 3.0 million, workers in the UK were underemployed; and 9.7%, or 2.9 million, were overemployed.
The figures for underemployment vary between different groups:
|•||11.0% of female workers||8.9% of male workers|
|•||19.6% of 16-24 year olds||9.9% of all workers|
|•||21.1% of people in elementary occupations (e.g. cleaners, shop assistants and security guards)||5.4% of people in professional occupations (e.g. doctors, teachers and accountants)|
|•||11.5% of people in the North East of England (in 2013)||9.2% of people in the East of England (in 2013)|
|•||22.1% of part-time workers||5.4% of full-time workers|
As far as the overemployed are concerned, professional people and older people are more likely want shorter hours
The ONS data also show how under- and overemployment have changed over time: see chart (click here for a PowerPoint). Before the financial crisis and recession, overemployment exceeded underemployment. After the crisis, the position reversed: underemployment rose from 6.8% in 2007 to a peak of 10.8% in mid-2012; while overemployment fell from 10.5% in 2007 to a trough of 8.8% in early 2013.
More recently, as the economy has grown more strongly, underemployment has fallen back to 9.9% (in 2014 Q2) and overemployment has risen to 9.7%, virtually closing the gap between the two.
The fact that there is still significant underemployment suggests that there is still considerable slack in the labour market and that this may be acting as a brake on wage increases. On the other hand, the large numbers of people who consider themselves overemployed, especially among the professions and older workers, suggests that many people feel that they have not got the right work–life balance and many may be suffering consequent high levels of stress.
Rise in number of UK workers who want to cut back hours, ONS says The Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/11/14)
Data reveal slack and stretch in UK workforce Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor (25/11/14)
Will you graduate into underemployment? The Guardian, Jade Grassby (30/9/14)
Three million people would take pay cut to work shorter hours: Number who say they feel overworked rises by 10 per cent in one year Mail Online, Louise Eccles (26/11/14)
ONS: Rate of under-employment in Scotland lower than UK average Daily Record, Scott McCulloch (25/11/14)
Underemployment and Overemployment in the UK, 2014 ONS (25/11/14)
- Distinguish between unemployment (labour force survey (LFS) measure), unemployment (claimant count measure), underemployment (UK measure), underemployment (Eurostat measure) and disguised unemployment.
- Why is underemployment much higher amongst part-time workers than full-time workers?
- How do (a) underemployment and (b) overemployment vary according to the type of occupation? What explanations are there for the differences?
- Is the percentage of underemployment a good indicator of the degree of slack in the economy? Explain.
- How is the rise in zero hours contracts likely to have affected underemployment?
- How could the problem of overemployment be tackled? Would it be a good idea to pass a law setting a maximum number of hours per week that people can be required to do in a job?
- Would flexible working rights be a good idea?