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Not another job miracle: the mirage of full employment

Another quarter-year, another labour market release. Cue the DWP praising itself for record numbers of people in work, and record rates of people in work, and eight other employment records. The UK must be nearing full employment, with rages rising and working conditions improving.

To the many people looking for any work, more work and better work, the DWP’s narrative doesn’t make sense.  How come, if the economy and job market is doing so well, their work and pay is still so poor?

Politicians and economists will discuss all sorts of reasons why this might be the case. They’ll select the data they want and portray it in the way they like, and come up with a story that blames the little people for not working hard enough (if you’re the government) or blames the government for not ensuring that there are enough jobs to go round (if you’re the opposition). But the question still remains: why does the DWP think that we have a thriving and growing labour market, yet the people at the bottom experience a different reality? Why does the data say we have record numbers of people in work, yet people are still poor and can’t get the hours or work that they want?

There is one informative number that can shed some light on this discrepancy between rhetoric and reality:

The number of hours worked has fallen.

Yes, the number of people in work has increased and the number of people not seeking work has decreased. Yes, the employment rate at 75.3% is the joint highest since records began in 1971.

But also yes, the people counted in work includes people who work one hour a week, people who are on long-term sick leave and have a job to return to, and people on DWP unpaid work placements, work experience and training. All of whom may also be on ESA because they are too sick to work, but they are counted in the employment figures, not the inactive figures. Any reasonable person would consider these persons to be closer to the ‘inactive’ population group than the ’employed’ population group.

So what we actually have is fewer hours of work – and therefore a smaller job market – masked by the fact that these hours are spread over more people, and therefore held up as a success story when in fact its a terrible indictment of the UK’s style of political economics.

The DWP and the Conservative government are not presiding over a jobs miracle or a successful labour market. Calling more people in less work a “record-breaking” achievement is not helpful and doesn’t present an accurate picture of the labour market. Sure, we may have broken 10 employment records in 2017. But those records don’t reflect the whole story.  It’s like calling night day by zooming in on one star until it fills your telescope like the sun. The government is presiding over a country and an economy where the people at the bottom don’t have the opportunity to escape poverty by getting more work or better work, because there isn’t more let alone better work available.

I don’t know whether the DWP is deliberately misleading the public, or has misled itself, but neither is acceptable. We need honest leaders who look at all the numbers, not just the pretty ones.


ONS employment covers “people aged 16 and over who did one hour or more of paid work per week (as an employee or self-employed), those who had a job that they were temporarily away from, those on government-supported training and employment programmes, and those doing unpaid family work.”

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