Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Under-employment

Today figures were announced showing that ‘under-employment’ in the UK has risen by 1 million since 2008, to over 3 million, or one in then of the UK workforce.. You can see the report here. Under-employment refers to those people who have jobs but would like to work for more hours if they could. Mostly this means part-time workers, although it can also be full-time workers wanting overtime. This under-employment is hidden by normal unemployment figures, and it links with the wider problem of what Guy Standing calls the precariat, which I mention in passing in the book (p.117). The precariat may have jobs, but these are temporary, insecure or simply insufficient to meet their needs.

This story prompted three thoughts.

One was to reflect that when I was a child in the 1970s, it was perfectly possible, and pretty much the norm, for a family to be sustained in what was generally considered to be a good standard of living by the wage of a full-time earner. Nowadays, that isn’t true: it takes two full-time wages to sustain such a lifestyle. Of course when I was a child the wage-earner was normally the man of a family, and it’s good that we have lost that sexist assumption. But it would have been preferable to have moved to a situation where there was no assumption of the male ‘breadwinner’ yet a family could have sustained a reasonable life with one wage, with either the man or the woman working full-time, or both working half-time (if we are thinking of the stereotypical mum and dad and 2.2 kids set up). What underlies the fact that this didn’t happen is that since my childhood wages have risen much less fast than labour productivity: the fruits of this increased productivity have been unequally distributed. See here.

That links to my second thought. It used to be thought that as societies became richer, people would become more leisured, and use that leisure in culturally enriching ways.  But the way that that has worked out has not been as predicted. Instead of leisure being generally shared out, society is split between those who suffer from too much work and all the stresses and dysfunctions that go with that, and those who have too little and their leisure is not one of cultural enrichment but grinding poverty.
Like productivity gains, leisure has been unequally distributed.

And then I wondered about other hidden features of the economy and work. The work that people (mainly women) do, unpaid, caring for children and, increasingly, elderly relatives. The people who have just dropped out of the benefits system because of its complexity and stigma. The young people staying reliant on their parents into their twenties, thirties or even beyond. Whose work and whose lives are visible is also a matter of unequal distribution.

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