Opportunity or necessity… what’s fuelling the growth in self-employment?


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.

Earnings growth?

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.

Final thoughts

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.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blogs on the gig economy, ‘the self-employment boom’ and ‘olderpreneurs‘.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Figuring it out: five issues emerging from the Scottish draft budget

The week before Christmas might not seem an ideal time to be mulling over the minutiae of economic forecasts and the implications of tax changes. But on Monday morning, the Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) review of last week’s Scottish draft budget attracted a big turnout, and helped make sense of the numbers announced by Scotland’s Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay.

Here are some of the key issues to emerge from yesterday morning’s presentations.

  1. Growth: degrees of pessimism

Last month, the UK Office for Budget Responsibility revised downwards its growth forecast for the UK economy to less than 2%. The FAI, meanwhile, has forecast a slightly lower growth rate for the Scottish economy of between 1% and 1.5%. However, the independent Scottish Fiscal Commission (SFC) is much more pessimistic, forecasting growth in the Scottish economy of less than 1% up to 2021. If the SFC’s forecast turns out to be accurate, this would mean the longest run of growth below 1% in Scotland for 60 years.

Dr Graeme Roy, director of the FAI, suggested that the SFC’s gloomy outlook is based on the view that the Scottish working-age population is projected to decline over the next decade. In addition, the SFC also believes that the slowdown in productivity, which has been a blight on the Scottish economy since the 2008 financial crisis, will continue.

  1. Income tax rises: reality v perception

Mr Mackay proposed big changes in Scotland’s tax system, with five income tax bands stretching from 19p to 46p. While these measures attracted the biggest headlines for the budget, the FAI believes that most people will see little meaningful impact in their overall tax bill (relative to income). Charlotte Barbour, director of taxation at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, also suggested that the tax changes are unlikely to result in any significant behavioural changes in the way people pay tax in Scotland. And, as has been noted elsewhere, high taxation does not necessarily lead to unsuccessful economies.

However, as the FAI highlighted, perception is important, and if Scotland comes to be seen as the most highly taxed part of the UK, this could have serious implications for business start-ups and inward investment.

  1. Taxation: two systems, multiple implications

Charlotte Barbour also highlighted some of the implications of the tax changes in Scotland that haven’t featured widely in press coverage. How the changes interact with areas such as Gift Aid, pensions, the married couple’s tax allowance, Universal Credit and tax credits will need careful examination in the coming weeks.

  1. Public spending: additional resources, but constrained settlements

The FAI’s David Eiser noted that Mr Mackay was able to meet his government’s commitments to maintain real terms spending on the police and provide £180m for the Attainment Fund. He also announced an additional £400m resource spending on the NHS. But these settlements are constrained in the context of the Scottish Government’s pay policy,

Mr Mackay’s plan offers public sector workers such as nurses, firefighters and teachers earning less than £30,000 pounds a year a 3% pay rise, and those earning more than that a 2% rise. For the NHS alone, this could cost as much as £170m.

In addition, analysis published yesterday by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICE) has estimated that, if local authorities were to match the Scottish Government’s pay policy, this would cost around £150m in 2018-19.

  1. The budget’s impact on poverty

If the growth forecasts are correct, even by 2022 real household incomes in Scotland will be below 2007 levels. Dr Jim McCormick, Associate Director Scotland to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, looked at the Scottish budget in the context of poverty, and suggested that three principles need to be addressed before the budget can be finalised: there are opportunities both to increase participation by minority groups in employment and to improve progression in low-wage sectors, such as hospitality and retail; energy efficiency is one important way of lowering household bills and improving housing quality in the private rented sector; and options such as topping up child tax credits and more generous Council Tax rebates are better at reducing poverty than cutting income tax.

Finalising the budget

As all of the speakers noted, the Scottish draft budget is not a done deal. The minority Scottish National Party government in the Scottish Parliament needs the support of at least one other party to ensure its measures are adopted. The most likely partner is the Scottish Green Party, which has indicated that the budget cannot pass as it stands, but could support the government if an additional £150m is committed to local government.

It took until February this year before the Scottish Government’s 2016 draft budget could be passed. Time will tell whether a budget announced shortly before Christmas 2017 can finally be agreed before Valentine’s Day 2018.

The complete collection of slides presented at the Fraser of Allander Institute’s Scottish budget review are available to download here.

Our blog post on the Fraser of Allander Institute’s review of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2017 Autumn Budget is available here.

Costs and benefits of the National Living Wage

English money

By Heather Cameron

Britain’s bosses have been urged by the government to prepare early for the introduction of the National Living Wage (NLW) in April next year.

Firms are advised to follow four simple steps:

  • know the correct rate of pay – £7.20 per hour for staff aged 25 and over
  • find out which staff are eligible for the new rate
  • update the company payroll in time for 1 April 2016
  • communicate the changes to staff as soon as possible


This push coincides with a new poll revealing that 93% of bosses support the Living Wage initiative, with a majority believing it will boost productivity and retain staff.

This is supported by new research by the University of Strathclyde and the Living Wage Foundation (LWF), which uses real-life case studies and evidence from employees working for accredited Living Wage employers. It suggests that paying staff a living wage leads to many business benefits – such as staff retention, more efficient business processes, improved absenteeism and better staff performance.

Potential benefits

Many of the findings highlighted relate to research on the London Living Wage (LLW). Among these include:

  • 50.3% of employees receiving the LLW registered above average scores for psychological wellbeing, a sign of good morale, compared to just 33.9% of non-LLW employees studied
  • an average 25% reduction in staff turnover was reported for organisations moving to the LLW
  • and 70% of employers studied reported reputational benefits through increased consumer awareness of their commitment to being an ethical employer

Estimates show that 4.5 million employees will see a rise in their wages as a result of the introduction of the NLW in 2016, with a further 2.6 million gaining from spillovers. By 2020, 6 million employees are predicted to have received a pay increase.

Up to one in four workers are expected to experience a significant positive impact from the NLW. If the result is indeed a happier workforce, perhaps the knock-on effect for businesses will be improved productivity.

There will however be variation across different parts of the UK and across different households, depending on how the NLW interacts with the tax and benefit system (it should be noted that many estimates were made prior to the u-turn on welfare reform). And let’s not forget that the NLW is not for all as under-25s will not be eligible.

Costs to employers

The impact on employees and therefore employment generally, will also depend on the actions firms take to prepare for the NLW in order to mitigate costs.

Indeed, the research from Strathclyde and LWF recognises that implementing the NLW will inevitably involve initial costs to businesses and could represent an issue for some companies more than others.

According to the Federation for Small Businesses, a negative impact on business is expected by 38% of small employers, with many expected to slow their hiring and raise prices.

It has been estimated that the NLW may lead to an increase in the unemployment rate by 0.2% points in 2020; resulting in around 60,000 more people unemployed and total hours worked per week across the economy around 4 million lower.

Businesses may also look to employ those under the age of 25 who won’t be eligible for the NLW. This could particularly impact on those sectors with a high proportion of lower paid employees, such as social care – a sector that is already under financial pressure.

The roll out of the Living Wage has certainly raised concern over potential costs for councils, which are having to deal with increasing budget cuts. The Local Government Association (LGA) has estimated that the NLW could cost local authorities £1bn a year by 2020/21.

So while increasing wages for low paid workers may seem like a no-brainer in the bid to help reduce in-work poverty, the full impact on employees, employers and therefore the economy, remains uncertain. Only time will tell what the true impact of the NLW will be.

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous blog on the Living Wage

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Spreading the word on the living wage

By James Carson

Last week, Church of England bishops issued a letter calling for a new direction that they believe political life in the UK ought to take. Among the bishops’ recommendations was support for the living wage:

“It represents the basic principle that people are not commodities and that their lives cannot adapt infinitely in response to market pressures.”

It didn’t take long for the media to find flaws in the Church’s own approach to paying its staff. This week it was reported that a Church job in Canterbury was being advertised at £6.70 per hour. The living wage, calculated from the basic cost of UK life, is currently £7.85 an hour outside London.

Low pay seems likely to be one of the key issues in the general election campaign, so a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is especially timely.

Low pay is endemic

The report describes low pay as “endemic” in the UK labour market, noting that more than one in five workers in the UK experience low pay, a proportion that has changed little in more than 25 years.

Among the research findings:

  • More than a third of low-paid workers (38.4%) experience a period of worklessness over a four year period;
  • Being low paid increases the probability of experiencing a period of worklessness by around 10%, after accounting for a host of individual, family-level and employment characteristics;
  • Those low-paid workers on temporary contracts, and those with work-limiting health conditions or disabilities, are the most likely to experience a spell of worklessness over a four-year period.

The authors of the report express concern that when many of those workless individuals who were formerly low paid return to employment, it is to a similarly low level of earnings.

“This low-pay, no-pay cycle means many find it difficult to escape low living standards and advance in the world of work.”

In addition, the JRF report highlights  the significant burden on the state of having large numbers of low-paid workers alternating between employment and worklessness, and suggests that significant fiscal savings could be made if job security for those in low-paid positions was strengthened.

While the paper does not propose any specific policy recommendations to tackle the employment insecurity of low-paid work, the authors suggest that several areas of policy offer potential for co-ordinated solutions to this problem, including:

  • extending access to skills and training to those who are in work and lack qualifications;
  • limiting the burden of unplanned absence from work to employers through the targeted re-introduction of schemes such as statutory sick pay recovery;
  • providing support alongside incentives for low-paid workers to progress through in-work conditionality within Universal Credit.

The movement to encourage more employers to pay the living wage has picked up pace in recent months. Organisations such as Citizens UK and the Living Wage Foundation have campaigned to encourage more employers to pay the living wage. Even so, by the end of 2014, only 60,000 people in the UK were covered by this pay rise, with none of the big supermarkets or large care firms involved. Some local authorities, however, including Glasgow, Cardiff, Birmingham, Newcastle and the Greater London Authority, have adopted the living wage.

As the JRF report underlines, paying the living wage to employees results in reduced welfare benefits and extra taxes. Which means that, whether the employer is Tesco or the Archbishop of Canterbury, the living wage can give people basic rights and a sense of dignity in work, while making good economic sense for the nation’s coffers.

Further Reading

We’ve previosuly blogged on the living wage and addressing the causes of in-work poverty.

Other resources which you may find interesting (some may only be available to Idox Information Service members):

Wealth: having it all and wanting more

The benefits of tackling worklessness and low pay

Ten years of the GLA’s London Living Wage

Bare minimum is not enough (living wage)

Low pay Britain 2014

Sharing the caring – tackling the cultural and financial barriers to Shared Parental Leave

Baby hand in father's palmBy Donna Gardiner

New Shared Parental Leave legislation came into force in England, Scotland and Wales on the 1st December 2014.

The legislation provides much greater flexibility in regards to how parents care for their child over the first year of his or her life. Specifically, a new mother can opt to curtail her maternity leave (subject to a minimum of two weeks), and have the child’s father or her partner take any of the remaining weeks as Shared Parental Leave.

Anticipated uptake and impact

The aim of the legislation is to encourage more men to share childcare, drive greater gender equality in the workplace, and eliminate discrimination around maternity leave. The government estimates that around 285,000 couples will be eligible to share leave from April 2015, and that take up will be around 8%.  However, it is not clear whether significant numbers of fathers will take up Shared Parental Leave in practice.

On one hand, there does appear to be evidence that fathers will welcome the new proposals. Research conducted by Working Families found that many fathers wanted to increase the amount of time they spent at home with their children. Indeed, many fathers, particularly those in the 26-35 age group, felt resentful towards their employers because of their poor work-life balance.

These findings are echoed by the IPPR, which found that one in five fathers wanted to change their working patterns, and another one in five wanted to spend more time with their baby, but couldn’t because of financial or workplace reasons. Another report found that over half (57%) of fathers working full time wanted to reduce their hours to spend more time with their children.

Cultural and financial barriers

However, despite the apparent desire among fathers to spend more time with their children, considerable barriers remain. Continue reading