UK Unemployment figures for the July to September period have just been published. Perhaps surprisingly, the rate has fallen to 7.8% from 8.0% in the previous 3-month period. What is more, there have been similar 0.2 percentage-point falls in each of the two 3-month periods prior to that (see chart below).
This would normally suggest that the economy has been growing strongly and faster than the growth in potential output. But, despite positive economic growth in quarter 3 (see A positive turn of events?), the economy has been experiencing a prolonged period of low or negative growth.
So what is the explanation for the fall in unemployment? (For a PowerPoint of the chart, click here)
One reason is a greater flexibility in the labour market than in previous recessions. People are more willing to accept below inflation wage increases, or even nominal wage cuts, in return for greater job security. Others are prepared to reduce their hours.
The other reason is a fall in productivity (i.e. output per hour worked). One explanation is that people are not working so hard because, with a lack of demand, there is less pressure on them to be productive; a similar explanation is that firms are ‘hoarding’ labour in the hope that the market will pick up again.
Another explanation is that employment growth has often occurred in the low productivity industries, such as labour-intensive service industries; another is that when people leave their jobs they are replace by less productive workers on lower wages; another is that workers are making do with ageing equipment, whose productivity is falling, because firms cannot afford to invest in new equipment. An range of possible explanations is given on page 33 of the Bank of England’s November 2012 Inflation Report.
But with many predicting that growth will be negative again in 2012 quarter 4, the fall in unemployment may not continue. Britain may join many other countries in Europe and experience rising unemployment as well as falling output.
Government hails fall in jobless total The Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (14/11/12)
UK unemployment figures: analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/11/12)
Jobless claims rise as Olympics effect wanes The Telegraph, Rachel Cooper and Louisa Peacock (14/11/12)
UK unemployment falls to 2.51 million, ONS says BBC News (14/11/12)
Unemployment continuing to fall BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (14/11/12)
Britain’s recession: Harsh but fair? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (17/10/12)
The UK productivity puzzle (cont’d) BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (20/9/12)
UK jobs: The plot thickens BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (15/8/12)
Unemployment: the key UK data and benefit claimants for every constituency Guardian Data Blog
Labour Market Statistics, November 2012 ONS
Video Summary: Latest on the Labour Market, November 2012 ONS
Labour Productivity, Q2 2012 ONS
International Comparisons of Productivity, First estimates for 2011 ONS
- What possible explanation are there for the latest fall in unemployment?
- What has been happening to employment, both full time and part time?
- What are the different ways of measuring productivity? Why will they be affected differently by a fall in the average number of hours worked?
- Why might it be in firms’ interests to maintain the level of their workforce despite falling sales?
- Assume that there has been a fall in aggregate demand. Compare the resulting effect on consumption of (a) a fall in wages rates; (b) a rise in unemployment. How might the design of the benefit system affect the answer?