Employment and Unemployment

Data in this section are expressed relative to the UK population of working age. This is defined as from 16 years old to state pension age (with due allowance for how that has changed in recent years). Three categories are used in national statistics: employed, unemployed and economically inactive. The ’employed’ category includes full time and part time workers.

People not working are classed as unemployed if they have been looking for work within the last four weeks and are able to start work within the next two weeks. There is no requirement to be claiming any form of benefit in order to be classed as unemployed.

Jobless people who have not been looking for work within the last four weeks or who are unable to start work within the next two weeks are classed as economically inactive. This category includes people who have retired prior to state pension age as well as people simply not wishing to work, e.g., those favouring full time domestic duties, or simply the idle rich.

Belinda Brown in “Reviewing gendered employment policies” (2014) has observed that whilst the government strategy of encouraging increasing female employment has been successful, it has the unfortunate effect of reducing male employment. There is no doubt that this is true of employment rate, defined as the percentage of the working age population who are employed. Brown’s data, from 1971 to 2011 (referenced as being from here),  is reproduced in graphical form in Figure 1, in comparison with data from the ONS Labour Force Survey datasets, “participation in employment in UK 1993 to 2014”.

Figure 1 may be compared with Figure 2, ultimately from the same source (the ONS Labour Force Survey) but Figure 2 normalises the data by the whole population aged 16 and over, not just the working age population. Finally, Figure 3 confirms Figure 1.

The striking thing about the employment data is that the male employment rate has reduced by almost the same as the female employment rate has increased (roughly 14% to 16%). I stress this is in terms of employment rate, which is a percentage of the working age population. Because the working age population has increased, the change in absolute numbers of people employed is different. I estimate that the number of employed men has reduced by about 8% since 1971, whereas the number of employed women has increased by about 40%.

The benefit to the economy, in terms of increased GDP due to a larger employed workforce, would appear to depend upon an increasing population. Conversely, increasing female participation in the workplace does not, in itself, increase economic activity. And yet this appears to be the driver behind the endless initiatives to improve female academic performance, increase female representation on Boards, increase women-in-STEM, and increase female employment generally.

Figure 1: Employment rate against year (Brown & ONS data)

Employment as percent of working age population

Figure 2: Employment rate against year (ONS data), normalised using the whole population aged 16+

Labour participation rates

Figure 3: Employment rate against year (unknown provenance)

employment rates

The flip side of employment are the economically inactive people. Figure 4 shows the number of inactive people as a proportion of the working age population from 1993 to 2015 (data from from this ONS dataset). The number of inactive women was double the number of inactive men in 1993. By 2015 the number of inactive women had become only 50% greater than  the number of inactive men.

Figure 5 shows the actual number of inactive people. There has been little change in the number of economically inactive women, but the number of economically inactive men has increased significantly. There are 880,000 more men in the UK who are economically inactive now than there were in 1993. This cannot be good news for the economy.

Figure 4

Economically active people as percent of working population

Figure 5

Number of economically inactive in UK

Interpretation and Opinion

Men continue to be the main engine of the economy. Yet men’s commitment to work and earning power are declining. The causes are probably declining male educational attainment compared to women, together with the decreasing popularity of marriage. These two phenomena are related, and both are probably related to the diminishing of men’s role as resource providers to the family.

It is important to recognise that this changing behaviour of men is rational, not perverse. In response to the decline of the provider role – in response essentially to being less needed – it is inevitable that men will strive less. For what, exactly, should they strive? Increasingly the answer is ‘for themselves’, as men are more and more ejected from family life. But a single man’s needs are modest and may be fulfilled without the greater voluntary burdens that married fathers place upon themselves in deference to their families’ needs.

The decline in men’s economic contribution is being hidden behind the mantra of the gender pay gap – invariably averaged over all ages and hence obscuring the key fact: that other things being equal men are now paid less than women (see Hourly pay rates, Figure 3). Men are also gradually working fewer hours, consistent with their diminishing work focus (see Working hours).

The potentially catastrophic phenomenon of men’s economic decline is being hidden because the relative earning power of women is seen as more important. But it does no good to say that ‘it is only your end of the boat which is sinking’. There is only the one boat.

Related links (open in this tab)