Many people are attracted to work in the private sector, with expectations of greater opportunities for promotion, more variation in work and higher salaries. However, according to the Office for National Statistics, it may be that the oft-talked-of pay differential is actually in the opposite direction. Data from the ONS suggests that public sector workers are paid 14.5% more on average than those working in the private sector.
As is the case with the price of a good, the price of labour (that is, the wage rate) is determined by the forces of demand and supply. Many factors influence the wages that individuals are paid and traditional theory leads us to expect higher wages in sectors where there are many firms competing for labour. With the government acting as a monopsony employer, it has the power to force down wages below what we would expect to see in a perfectly competitive labour market. However, the ONS data suggests the opposite. What factors can explain this wage differential?
Jobs in the public sector, on average, require a higher degree of skills. There tend to be entry qualifications, such as possessing a university degree. While this is the case for many private-sector jobs as well, on average it is a greater requirement in the public sector. The skills required therefore help to push up the wages that public-sector workers can demand. Another explanation could be the size of public-sector employers, which allows them to offer higher wages. When the skills, location, job specifications etc. were taken into account, the 14.5% average hourly earnings differential declined to between just 2.2% and 3.1%, still in favour of public-sector workers. It then reversed to give private-sector workers the pay edge, once the size of the employer was taken out.
Further analysis of the data also showed that, while it may pay to be in the public sector when you’re starting out on your career, it pays to be in the private sector as you move up the career ladder. Workers in the bottom 5% of earners will do better in the public sector, while those in the top 5% of earners benefit from private-sector employment. The ONS said:
Looking at the top 5%, in the public sector earnings are greater than £31.49 per hour, while in the private sector, the top 5% earn more than £33.63 per hour… The top 1% of earners in the private sector, at more than £60.21 per hour, earns considerably more than the top 1% of earners in the public sector, at more than £49.65 per hour.
The data from the ONS thus suggest a reversal in the trend of average public-sector pay being higher than private sector pay, once all the relevant factors are taken into account.
This will naturally add to debates about living standards, which are likely to take on a stronger political slant as the next election approaches. It is obviously partly down to the public-sector pay freeze that we saw in 2010 and also to a reversal, at least in part, of the previous trend from 2008, where public-sector pay had been growing faster than private-sector pay. However, depending on the paper you read or the person you listen to, they will offer very different views as to who gets paid more. All you need to do in this case is look at the titles of the newspaper articles written by the Independent and The Telegraph! Whatever the explanation, these new data provide a wealth of information about relative prospects for pay for everyone.
Public and Private Sector Earnings Office for National Statistics (March 2014)
Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2013 Provisional Results Office for National Statistics (December 2013)
Austerity bites as private sector pay rises above the public sector for the first time since 2010 Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector workers still better paid despite the cuts The Telegraph, John Bingham (10/3/14)
Public sector hourly pay outstrips private sector pay BBC News (10/3/14)
Public sector workers are biggest losers in UK’s post-recession earnings squeeze The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/3/14)
New figures go against right-wing claims that public sector workers are grossly overpaid Independent, Ben Chu (10/3/14)
Public sector pay sees biggest shrink on 2010, figures suggest LocalGov, Thomas Bridge (11/3/14)
Public sector staff £2.12 an hour better off The Scotsman, David Maddox (11/3/14)
- Illustrate the way in which wages are determined in a perfectly competitive labour market.
- Why does monopsony power tend to push wages down?
- Why does working for a large company suggest that you will earn a higher wage on average?
- Using the concept of marginal revenue product of labour, explain the way in which higher skills help to push up wages.
- How significant are public-sector pay freezes in explaining the differential between public- and private-sector pay?
- Why is there a difference between the bottom and top 5% of earners? How does this impact on whether it is more profitable to work in the public or private sector?
The pensions crisis is one area of social policy that has been the focus of attention for some years. With an ageing population, more people entering higher education and a rather substantial deficit facing the government, pension reform has been high on the agenda and not just in the UK.
A number of factors have contributed towards the so-called pensions crisis: rising life expectancy; the ‘baby-boomers’ retiring; more people staying in education for longer; an ageing population. All of these have led to a dependency ratio that is becoming worse – fewer workers to support every pensioner. Over the past few years, strikes have taken place in protest to government pension plans, especially for public sector workers, who see the proposals as making them worse off once they retire. Doctors are the latest group to strike in protest over having to work longer before retiring and having to pay higher national insurance contributions.
So, are the doctors justified in their protests? They are currently on a final-salary pension scheme, which is a very generous scheme, although it is being phased out and replaced with a career average scheme, which will have big implications for doctors’ pensions. Furthermore, there was an overhaul of their pensions in 2008, thus the criticism that further changes are now being made to make them even worse off. Doctors do pay higher national insurance contributions than other occupations, such as teachers and they will naturally receive a higher pension than other NHS workers, such as nurses simply because they earn more. However, this does have big implications for their future.
Inequality is a big issue across the UK and this doesn’t only refer to income. Those earning higher salaries are more likely to live longer than the average worker. So, we see life expectancy inequality as well. The consequence of this is that once an individual retires at say 60, if your life expectancy is 85, then you have 25 years to live in retirement receiving whatever pension you have accumulated throughout your working life. If, however, your life expectancy is only 75, perhaps because of your background, your occupation, your health, then you will only spend 15 years in retirement. The person that lives longer therefore receives significantly more in pension payments and if this differing life expectancy is related to your occupation and thus your salary, then inequality of income clearly has some very wide implications for pension schemes and rates of contribution.
There are, of course, wider effects of any industrial action by doctors. Whilst some may agree with their view that this further pension reform is unfair, if any strike action does take place there will be wider economic effects. Those in need of treatment may have to delay it and if that means more people taking sick days, then the economic cost to the economy could be significant. The following articles consider the latest controversy in public-sector pensions.
Independent Public Service Pensions Commission Final Report HM Treasury, Pensions Commission March 2011
Doctors’ strike: how the cost of NHS pensions soared Telegraph, Matthew Holehouset (21/6/12)
Are doctors’ pensions too generous Guardian, Hillary Osborne and Jill Insley (21/6/12)
Lansley: ‘Doctors’ pension scheme is generous’ BBC News (21/6/12)
Doctors get a nasty taste of Gordon Brown’s pension medicine Telegraph, Philip Johnston (18/6/12)
Doctors wrong on pensions, says Hutton Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Norma Cohen (19/6/12)
BMA ‘Inherent unfairness’ in doctor pensions BBC Radio 4 Today (21/6/12)
Reluctant move against intransigent government Scotsman, Dr Brian Keighley (21/6/12)
Will you be affected by the doctors’ strikes? BBC News (15/6/12)
- Explain the main factors that are contributing towards the so-called pensions crisis. In each case, is it a demand-side or supply-side issue?
- What are the main proposals to tackling the pensions crisis (not just for Doctors)?
- What is the difference between a career average and a final salary pension scheme? Which is better for (a) those on a higher salary at the end of their career and (b) those who are on a relatively lower salary at the end of their career? Make sure you explain your thinking!!
- What are the arguments both for and against this new round of pension reforms for doctors? Do you think the doctors are justified in taking strike action?
- What are the wider implications of industrial action? Think about the effect on individuals and on the economic performance of the wider economy.
- To what extent is it equitable that public sector workers should pay more in contributions and retire at the same age as the state pension age?
- How might higher contributions affect the incentive to work? What could we see happen to labour supply? Think about both income and substitution effects.
Pay rises have been few and far between since the onset of recession – at least that’s the case for most workers. Pay for private-sector workers rose by 2.7% on average over the past year and for many in the public sector there were pay freezes. But, one group did considerably better: directors. According to the Incomes Data Services (IDS), over the past year, the average pay of the directors of the FTSE 100 companies has increased by almost 50%. Not bad for the aftermath of a recession! Much of the increase in overall pay for directors came from higher bonuses; they rose on average by 23% from £737,000 in 2010 to £906,000 this year.
Unsurprisingly, politicians from all sides have commented on the data – David Cameron said the report was ‘concerning’ and has called for the larger companies to become more transparent about how they set executive pay. How much difference transparency will make is debatable. However, Martin Sorrell, Chief Executive of WPP defended these pay rises, by comparing the pay of directors of UK companies with their counterparts in other parts of the world.
However, this defence is unlikely to make the average person feel any better, as for most people, their overall standard of living has fallen. With CPI inflation at 3.3% in 2010 (and RPI inflation at 4.6%) a person receiving the average private-sector pay rise of 2.7% was worse off; with a pay freeze they would be considerably worse off. Essentially, buying power has fallen, as people’s incomes can purchase them fewer and fewer goods.
However, the data have given David Cameron an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of more women executives. He believes that more women at the top of the big companies and hence in the boardroom would have a positive effect on pay restraint. However, this was met with some skepticism. The following podcasts and articles consider this issue.
Podcasts and webcasts
Directors’ pay rose 50% in past year BBC News, Emma Simpson (28/10/11)
‘Spectacular’ share payouts for executives BBC Today Programme, Steve Tatton of Income Data Services (29/10/11)
Sir Martin Sorrell defends top pay BBC Today Programme, Sir Martin Sorrell, Chief executive of WPP (28/10/11)
‘A closed little club’ sets executive pay BBC Today Programme, John Purcell and Deborah Hargreaves (28/10/11)
Cameron says Executive pay in U.K. is ‘Issue of concern’ after 49% advance Bloomberg, Thomas Penny (28/10/11)
Directors’ pay rose 50% in last year, says IDS report BBC News (28/10/11)
Cameron ties top pay to women executives issue Financial Times, Jim Pickard and Brian Groom (28/10/11)
£4m advertising boss Sir Martin Sorrell defends rising executive pay Guardian, Jill Treanor and Mark Sweney (28/10/11)
Executive pay soars while the young poor face freefall: where is Labour? Guardian, Polly Toynbee (28/10/11)
My pay is very low, moans advertising tycoon with a basic salary of £1 MILLION a year Mail Online, Jason Groves and Rupert Steiner (29/10/11)
More women directors will rein in excessive pay, says David Cameron Guardian, Nicholas Watt (28/10/11)
David Cameron and Nick Clegg criticise directors’ ‘50% pay rise’ BBC News (28/10/11)
The FTSE fat cats are purring over their pay but that’s good for the UK The Telegraph, Damian Reece (28/10/11)
IDS press release
FTSE 100 directors get 49% increase in total earnings Incomes Data Services (26/10/11)
- What are the arguments supporting such high pay for the Directors of large UK companies?
- How are wages set in a) perfectly and b) Imperfectly competitive markets?
- Why is the average person worse off, despite pay rises of 2.5%?
- Why does David Cameron believe that more women in the boardroom would act to restrict pay rises?
- To what extent do you think that more transparency in setting pay would improve the system of determining executive pay?
- Do senior executives need to be paid millions of pounds per year to do a good job? How would you set about finding the evidence to answer this question?
- Is the high pay of senior executives a ‘market’ rate of pay or is it the result of oligopolistic collusion between the remuneration committees of large companies (a form of ‘closed shop’)?
- What would be the effect over time on executive pay of remuneration committees basing their recommendations on the top 50% of pay rates in comparable companies?
UK unemployment now stands at 2.47 million, which is a fall of 34,000 people in the three months to May. Meanwhile, the claimant count, which measures the number of individuals claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, fell by 20,800 between May and June to stand at 1.46 million.
The total number in employment increased by some 160,000 in the three months to May to reach 28.98 million. The increase in the number of individuals in work is largely due to an increase in the number of part-time workers, which now stands at some 27%. The development of the flexible firm has played a huge role in creating more and more part-time jobs.
Although declining unemployment is good news, and the jobless rate of 7.8% is now comparable with the EU and the US, there are suggestions that it may rise again next year. Indeed, unemployment is expected to peak at nearly 3 million in 2012 (10%) and an employer’s group has said that the UK may face serious job deficits for the next decade. As more and more jobs are lost in the public sector, estimates suggest that the economy must grow by 2.5% per year from now until 2015, in order to compensate these losses with extra jobs in the private sector.
As John Philpott, the Chief Economic Adviser at the CIPD said:
“A slightly milder growth outcome – which many would consider a decent recovery in output given the various strong headwinds at present facing the economy – is easily as imaginable as the OBR’s central forecast and would leave unemployment still close to 2.5 million by 2015, meaning Britain faces at least half a decade of serious prolonged jobs deficit.”
So, although the fall in the jobless rate is undoubtedly good news, the uncertain future for unemployment in the UK, will put a slight dampener on this news.
UK unemployment declines to 2.47m BBC News (14/7/10)
Economy Tracker BBC News (14/7/10)
Unemployment to peak at 3m by 2012 Telegraph (14/7/10)
Labour market report to show outlook for jobs worse than OBR projections Guardian, Katie Allen (14/7/10)
Part-time work boosts UK employment rate Sky News, Hazel Tyldesley (14/7/10)
Unemployment figures: what the experts say Guardian, Katie Allen (14/7/10)
Labour market statistics latest: Employment ONS
Labour Market Statistical Bulletin – July 2010 ONS
Labour market statistics: portal page ONS
- How is unemployment measured in the UK? Which is the most accurate method?
- What is the flexible firm and how has it allowed more part-time jobs to be created?
- Why is unemployment expected to rise again in the next few years?
- The ONS has reported that wage growth has eased sharply. How will this, along with falling unemployment rates, affect household incomes and consumption? Will one effect offset the other?
- Brendan Barber in the Guardian article, ‘Unemployment figures – what the experts say’, wrote that unemployment lags behind the rest of the economy. Why is this?
- What type of unemployment are we experiencing in the UK? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- Consider the government’s plans in terms of spending cuts. How are they likely to affect the rate of unemployment in the UK?