With unemployment reaching its lowest level since 1975, it may seem like the state of the labour market has improved in recent years. However, a closer look at the statistics suggests that this is not necessarily the case.
The strong performance in the labour market in part reflects the growth in self-employment, which has been a distinguishing feature of the labour market’s recovery since the last recession.
Growth in self-employment
There were almost 750,000 more self-employed in the UK workforce at the end of 2014 than at the start of the global financial crisis in 2008, representing a high proportion of the total net growth in jobs over this period. Self-employment accounts for over 15% of those in work in the UK – 4.8 million of a workforce of around 32 million. Between March 2008 and March 2017, self-employment accounted for almost a third of total employment growth.
The significance of the contribution of self-employment is highlighted in a recent article published in Regional Studies, which notes that of the 920,000 net new jobs created between quarter 1 of 2008 and quarter 2 of 2014, 693,000 were in self-employment.
There has also been a rise in the share of female self-employed and those that work part-time, in addition to growth in a broader range of industries and occupations among the self-employed.
Recent ONS figures also show that the growth in self-employment between 2001 and 2016 has been driven mainly by those who have a degree (or equivalent), leading to the share of the self-employed with a degree or equivalent increasing from 19.3% in 2001 to 32.6% in 2016 as a share of total self-employed. As a share of total employment (self-employed and employed), the figures show that relatively highly-qualified individuals are becoming more concentrated in the self-employed.
The reasons for this growth has been the subject of much debate, particularly as research suggests “many fail to earn a decent living”. This recent analysis by the New Economics Foundation found that 54% of all self-employed people are not earning a decent living. It also found that the percentage of the labour force in ‘good jobs’ had decreased from 63% in 2011 to 61% in 2016, suggesting that the quality of jobs is perhaps declining.
Similarly, the ONS figures suggest that the self-employment labour market remains financially insecure for its workers. They show that the distribution of self-employed income appears centred around £240 a week, much lower than that for employees, which is centred around £400 a week.
And, according to a recent report from CIPD, their real incomes have fallen more since 2008 than those of employees.
Perhaps, then, the self-employment growth has been driven by necessity rather than choice due to a lack of opportunity in the full-time labour market.
However, the evidence suggests it is not this simple.
Despite the widening gap in earnings between the self-employed and employed, the self-employed continue to have higher levels of job satisfaction than employees. The ONS figures also indicate that self-employed workers were more likely to supplement their income from elsewhere.
This would suggest that choice probably plays a large part in self-employment.
‘Push’ or ‘pull’ effect
There has been much discussion over whether the growth in self-employment is predominantly a result of choice or necessity.
It is often seen as a sign of labour market weakness, with self-employment perceived as a ‘last resort’ where a regular job can’t be found. The evidence suggests that this motivation accounts for just a small proportion of the change, however, with most of the rise in self-employment appearing to be out of choice rather than necessity.
Indeed, the recent analysis in the Regional Studies article, which examined the extent to which self-employment was associated with local ‘push’ or ‘pull’ effects, found little or no suggestion of any net ‘recession-push’ effect on self-employment. It suggests that:
- ‘pull’ factors are more significant in driving transitions into self-employment;
- self-employed business ownership appears not to function as a significant alternative to unemployment where paid employment demand is weak; and
- entrepreneurial activity prospers where local wages are higher and unemployment lower.
The uncertainty surrounding Brexit could also be having an effect as declining employer confidence has contributed to a growing number of short-term contracts – potentially making self-employment appear the better choice.
As the CIPD report highlights, there are probably more opportunities for self-employment now than there were a decade ago. And the self-employed are more likely to value highly aspects of the work, such as its variety, and choice over their working hours and pay.
Across the range of job-related characteristics, it is shown that the self-employed are as satisfied or more satisfied with their working life than employees, resulting in higher levels of overall job satisfaction – a finding that is consistent both over time and from different data sources.
In a time where work-life balance is of increasing importance, it is perhaps no surprise that self-employment is the path of choice.
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