Honest political discourse requires a warts and all picture of the underlying complexity of these figures – the ONS could help
What does the word “job” mean to you? The coalition government says that “since we came to office more than 1 million jobs have been created in the private sector”. The accompanying upbeat political narrative aims to dispel concern about the consequences of prolonged austerity. Yet most of us know that in our extremely deregulated labour market – according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development only the US and Canada offer workers fewer protections – convenient factoids about jobs typically conceal as much as they reveal.
A Guardian report of how participants on government work schemes help boost the headline employment figures is merely one example of the way in which our view of the jobs market needs to be brought into much sharper focus. A generation ago, when a 40-hour week and a permanent contract with an employer was the norm, ups and downs in the total number of people in work provided a reasonable barometer of the underlying state of the economy.
But this is far less true in a post-industrial age where “the standard working week” is no more and a growing army of contract workers may be always “in work” but not necessarily always “at work”. Almost half a million people now usually work fewer than six hours a week. No wonder that the net rise in employment in the past two years has gone hand in hand with growth in underemployment, more than 3 million people in jobs (almost a tenth of the workforce) at present crying out for more hours.
Increasingly central to what some commentators have labelled “the precariat” are self-employed people, the number of which has surged to well above 4 million since the financial crisis first struck in 2008. These account for a quarter of the “more than 1 million private sector jobs” created since mid-2010 but many who have taken this course could reasonably be described as “self-unemployed” – picking up the odd bit of casual work while desperate to avoid being stigmatised as “shirkers” in case this proves a barrier to getting a proper job.
Whatever the merit of the UK’s flexible deregulated labour market – which has undoubtedly served to prevent even higher unemployment in recent years – honest political discourse requires a warts and all picture of the underlying complexity, one that better reflects people’s everyday experience in a flat-lining economy. But I disagree with the often heard argument that this means we have to fundamentally alter our approach to measuring employment.
While the measurement framework currently applied by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), largely based on the rolling quarterly Labour Force Survey, might be refined it already contains the necessary breadth of information we need on the types of jobs we do, how many hours we work and how short of work we are. What’s lacking is the capacity to present this in a way that seriously challenges political presentation of “the facts”. Although the ONS compiles and presents its data in a politically neutral way, in recent years also making far greater effort to bring labour market statistics to a wider public audience, political narrative always manages to hold sway, whichever government is in power.
Given the critical importance of employment to our economic, social and psychological wellbeing there is thus a strong case for the ONS to publish a comprehensive high-profile quarterly employment and labour market report, similar to the Bank of England’s inflation reports, fronted by the national statistician. This would be subject to public scrutiny but would, more importantly, provide a necessary benchmark against which to judge whatever line the politicians are spinning.