On both sides of the Atlantic the economic recovery is seems to be gaining pace. Quantitative easing is being eased in the US. In austerity Britain, ‘the plan is working’ according to Prime Minister David Cameron. He seems to have some evidence for this claim. According to the latest labour market data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, a record number of people are now in work – that’s more people now in jobs than ever before in the UK.
The headline figures show that unemployment is down (0.3%) and employment up (0.4%) in the UK. However digging below the headlines reveals a more mixed picture, with differences by region. Unemployment is highest in the North East and lowest in the East of England. Scotland though has lower unemployment than the UK overall and Northern Ireland a higher rate. The employment rate is highest for the South East of England, which includes the economic hothouse of London, and lowest in the North East. Economic inactivity is highest amongst people in the North West of England.
The jobs pattern now looks a little less clear cut and certainly less consistent geographically. Indeed whereas sociologists once talked of an economic North-South divide in the UK, the current picture looks more like a patchwork economy. Some regions are doing better than others but with no clear dividing point.
However the mixed picture starts to look really grim when the types of jobs being created are included. Over the same period, the number of part-time jobs has increased more than full-time jobs, and increased most for women. And this was not simply worker choice: the demand by workers for more working hours has also increased. At the same time some employers in the UK are trying to force down job quality. As the New York Times recently reported, Ineos, owner of a large petro-chemical plant in Scotland recently abruptly closed the plant, only agreeing to re-open it when workers accepted a wage freeze and reduced pension contributions.
It seems that in the cheer for the quantity of jobs, the quality of these jobs has been overlooked.
A similar cheer and groan can be heard in the US. The jobs crisis and recovery has benefited women, Mary Gatta points out. During the crisis women lost fewer jobs than men and latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that, as the economy recovers, more jobs are going to women. Again, however, digging below the headlines reveals a job quality time bomb. Whilst it is true that job growth is concentred in traditionally female jobs in retail and hospitality, these jobs also are low-waged, have minimal benefits and fewest hours. As Gatta states, they offer little economic security.
Little wonder that the OECD, which includes the US and UK, wants not just more jobs but better jobs as the route out the global economic crisis. Without an emphasis on creating better jobs, the patchwork economy will become embedded; far better to hope that the current differences represent just a multi-speed transition back to full recovery for all. Good jobs positively impact on individual well-being, firm productivity and national competiveness. In a global economy, neither the US nor UK can afford to become locked into a downward job quality spiral.