With good reason, Employment and Unemployment are sensitive issues both emotively and economically and are wheeled out by the parties at election time as the weapon of choice to batter each other with. Fun to watch but becomes quite wearing when it finally dawns on the spectators that the figures they are squabbling over are utterly meaningless in the real world or, to put it in another more charitable way, meaningless except to the political narrative they have been employed to prove or disprove. In the latter context, data is more often than not gobbledegook.
The problem with Employment figures begins with the definition of the word itself, Employment. From most legitimate sources, the literary definition is the condition of having paid work. There are no quantifiers for the amount of time “employment” must encompass and there is certainly no qualifier indicating that the work must be satisfying, well paid or that it must even cover the bills. No, to be in Employment one must simply have any sort of paid work.
Other words such as Job and Work have come to mean roughly the same thing as Employment, except when they don’t. For example, Employment will always involve doing a Job or a few Jobs whereas doing a Job for someone may not involve being in Employment or, in fact, in Work either. It’s a minefield, but the point is when one of the most significant facts of life is wheeled out as a barometric indicator of the health and well-being of a nation one must know precisely what the subject is and that its definition is watertight and commonly understood. In fact, I would go further and argue that the subject must not only be properly defined, we must also be totally confident data relating to that subject is acquired and evaluated in such a way that it is meaningful in real life.
Headlines in the press recently broadcast the assertion that at the beginning of 2017 a larger proportion of working-age people had a job of some description than had ever been recorded before. Now, from a statistical point of view I can see why this statement might be pant-wettingly exciting, however, from a real life perspective it’s pretty meaningless and almost certainly untrue. It throws up more questions than I suspect there are answers, for example, exploring definitions alone, being of “working age” does not mean those people are able and/or willing to do a job of work while “a job of some description” points rather too comfortably to politicians’ wriggle-some sound-bites. A job that lasts five minutes or an hour a day and pays nothing isn’t worth a line on an under-employed economics graduates CV and cannot be regarded as Employment by any standard unless, of course, the candidate is working for a very famous person, or corporation, as an intern. Even then, it’s questionable.
In the UK it’s generally believed that the methods used by the various agencies to gather and present statistical information are done with the politically motivated intention to disguise problems in the wider economy.
And it’s true, whenever we, the British public, are presented with employment and unemployment figures the supporting evidence runs to page after page of figures, graphs and tables most of which make very little sense when set against our knowledge of what is actually going on around us. In business, I have always used the rule of thumb: where a report is overly complex, any attempt at proving its veracity one way or the other is rarely worth the expenditure or the resources. I always suspect the presenter is hiding the truth and/or their incompetence behind a blizzard of paper.
All too frequently, complexity arises from asking the wrong question, then misapplying the wrong answer. Whilst the result might sound good it may not actually bear any relation to the matter in hand. The numbers quite literally self-ignite. For example, in a recent report into reasons behind the phenomenon of record employment, we are assured that people who are temporarily employed because they can’t find permanent employment have made no significant contribution to the overall high number of people in some sort of job. Utter rubbish of course, for the simple reason that temporary or permanent, a job is a job and will certainly be counted as such in official figures. But to say a proportion of people are only working in temporary employment because they can’t find a permanent position is pointless in the same way as saying people only fly with British Airways because they can’t find any pterodactyls. The figures would only be relevant if there was known to be an abundance of permanent positions waiting to be filled or there was known to be none at all.
As far as levels of employment are concerned, it’s the shortfall, or otherwise, between the numbers of workers and jobs of all descriptions that’s meaningful.
Zero Hour Contracts also conspire to make a nonsense of employment data in the UK. The majority of the very few EU countries which allow these types of contract do not classify people with such contracts as employed. On this basis, if we were to apply the same criteria to the UK, approximately a million workers would be added to the list of the unemployed and we would immediately see the boast that more people are employed than ever before is nonsense.
I would like to think these EU states are driven more by the political desire to expose problems in their economies so they can be dealt with rather than to hide them as we do in the UK.
So, what do we actually need in order to form an honest opinion of how well the employment needs of UK citizens are being met and how well our economy is being run on our behalf?
This isn’t the place to go into that much detail, but let me make a start by suggesting a few fundamental measures:
Let us say that . . .
- to be in full-time employment means the working week should be no less than 30 hours (the EU says 48, but what the heck!). So, to be in part-time employment means to work any number of hours less than that regardless of the number of contracts the hours are spread over.
- a Contract of Employment or several contracts compounded should be capable of supporting, say, a mortgage application.
- when advertised, the expected wage for every job should be valued as a percentage of GDP per capita (e.g. a job paying £20,000 per annum would have a GDP per capita value of approximately 50%).
Additionally, it would be beneficial to individual workers and the economy as a whole if every form of Employment paid at least the minimum living wage as set by the Living Wage Foundation.
To establish these as the basis for getting at the truth about employment in the UK would be a very good start.