Beneath the headlines: record high employment rate but what’s more important, quantity or quality?

Competition for new jobs

The UK employment rate has hit a joint record high of 76.1%, according to the latest official figures. The unemployment rate was estimated at 3.8%; it has not been lower since 1974. The economic inactivity rate was also close to a record low.

It’s not surprising that such record figures are often highlighted as ‘good news’ headlines. However, there has also been an increasing focus on quality of work over the past decade and the impact this has on people’s lives – reflecting concerns regarding developments in working practices, as highlighted by a recent City-REDI briefing paper. It has therefore been argued that the record employment rates are not necessarily representative of a ‘good news’ story.

Concerns

Concerns over working practices include the rise of the gig economy, unequal gains from flexible working, job insecurity and wage stagnation, to name but a few. The City-REDI paper outlines a number of ongoing concerns related to:

  • weak productivity growth;
  • employment insecurity and precarity;
  • in-work poverty;
  • skills shortages and skills polarisation; and
  • the impact of automation, technological change and the gig economy on the nature and experience of work.

Indeed, analysis has shown that much of the recent rise in employment is due to a ‘surge in low-value work’, which is holding back productivity growth. Many people are stuck in low paid insecure work, all of whom are contributing to the high employment rate.

Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has reported that four million workers live in poverty, a rise of over half a million over five years – meaning in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment. The causes of this increase include poorly paid jobs – particularly under temporary and part-time contracts – and a lack of progression routes for people in low-skilled work.

In addition, the rising gig economy shows no signs of slowing down, more than doubling in size over the past three years and now accounting for 4.7 million workers, according to a new report. An interesting finding of the report is that the majority of gig economy workers use this platform to supplement other forms of income, suggesting that workers are not getting enough of an income from their primary employment.

It has also been shown that advances in technology have pushed some workers into poorer quality jobs than those lost, something which cannot be addressed without some kind of policy intervention.

Health impact

Not only is poor quality work bad for the economy, it is also bad for people’s health.

A recent report which examined the impact on social inequalities of policy initiatives and reforms to extend working lives in five European countries, highlighted that working conditions are also known to influence post-retirement health, and for those with lower socioeconomic status, workplace arrangements may be causing or contributing to poor health.

A number of studies have highlighted the link between good work and health and wellbeing. As stated by a What Works for Wellbeing briefing paper, “Being in a job is good for wellbeing. Being in a ‘high quality’ job is even better for us.” It has also even been suggested that being in a poor quality job is actually worse for health and wellbeing than remaining unemployed.

Moves towards improving quality

Recent developments in the UK to address such challenges for the future and quality of work include:

  • the establishment of The Work Foundation’s Commission on Good Work in 2016, which aims to better understand the factors shaping change, and the nature and scale of opportunities and risks, so as to promote policies to achieve ‘good work’;
  • The commissioning and publication of the independent Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices in 2017 which called for policy to address the wider issue of creating quality jobs for all; and
  • the Government’s Good Work Plan, published in December 2018, which sets out the reforms planned to help improve quality of work – the first time the UK Government placed equal emphasis on the quality and quantity of work.

In addition, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) launched the UK Working Lives survey, the first robust measurement of job quality in the UK. This has since contributed to government thinking and recommendations around ‘good work’ in response to the Taylor Review.

Despite the widespread agreement over the need to adopt ‘good work’ principles, however, there remains no agreed set of indicators of exactly what it encompasses nor metrics for measuring progress towards it.

What is good work?

As the City-REDI briefing paper and other studies indicate, defining good quality work is complex as quality means different things to different people.

A range of factors contribute to different people’s perception of quality and fulfilling work, including pay, flexibility, security, health and wellbeing, nature of work and job design. The CIPD survey highlights seven dimensions of job quality:

  • pay and benefits
  • employment contacts
  • job design and nature of work
  • work-life balance
  • work relationships
  • voice and representation
  • health and wellbeing

Of course, there is no one size fits all solution.

Final thoughts

While productivity and employment rates undoubtedly remain important, they alone are clearly not enough to understand the health of the labour market; the quality of work also needs to be considered.

As shown by the visible shift from quantity to quality of work in recent years and the recent developments from the government and others, ‘good work’ is undeniably on the policy agenda. However, as the City-REDI paper suggests, there should be a focus on promoting ‘good work’ amongst the most disadvantaged groups such as the young, people with disabilities and those working in hotels and restaurants. It is also suggested that there is scope for further research on good practice in promoting ‘good work’ in establishments of different sizes and in different sectors.

As highlighted in the Taylor Review, “All work should be fair and decent with realistic scope for development and fulfilment.


You may also be interested in some of our previous employment-related posts:

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

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

iStock_650068Small_BusinessManInMeadow

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.

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