Beneath the unemployment stats, our jobs market is changing


Unemployment is up.  That’s the latest from the Office of National Statistics.  Their stats released this morning show 48,000 people fell out of work in the last quarter, with the unemployment rate rising to 8.4 percent. For ministers looking for a positive spin, the good news is that employment’s also up, and there has been a slight decrease in economic inactivity.

Yet these headline measures mask significant changes in working patterns. The number of people working part-time or on a temporary basis has risen, while the number of full-timers has dropped. Self-employment, though it has fallen very slightly, has been creeping year-on-year much beyond expected trends. It is now near its highest levels since records began.

What do these changes tell us about our jobs market?  They are not, in themselves, cause for concern. The problem comes when they do not reflect people’s preferences – when people take on part-time work because it’s all they can find or others take on poorly paid and insecure piece work in a bid to avoid unemployment.

And worryingly, today’s statistics show us that this is happening more than ever before. As mentioned over on the New Statesman blog, the number of people (both employees and self-employed) who are working part-time because they could not find a full-time job is up 83,000 to 1.35 million, its highest level since comparable records began in 1992.  And, as CIPD reported last month, the drivers behind today’s sky high level of self-employment are also worrying.  Far from being a sign of entrepreneurs taking a risk on new business ventures, many of today’s self-employed look more like an “army of part-time ‘odd jobbers’ desperate to avoid unemployment”.

For the time being, it is right that our national focus is on getting people out of unemployment. But as the TUC argued yesterday, it’s dangerous to assume that lowering the unemployment rate alone solves the problem. Taking part-time, temporary or poor quality self-employed work because it is the only option available can have a big impact on households. As well as increasing job insecurity, it can put an ever greater strain on household finances. We must be careful not to ignore these trends and the individual vulnerability and dissatisfaction they can bring.