“Want work” levels and women’s labour market participation
Women Want Work is a new TUC briefing that argues that the official unemployment figures under-state the jobs shortage; in particular they minimise the number of women who aren’t in employment but ideally would like a paid job.
This is because of the way unemployment is defined for the monthly labour market statistics. According to these figures, the unemployment rate has been below 6 per cent since the end of last year, and is currently 5.8 per cent for men and even lower – 5.4 per cent – for women. This is an achievement: the unemployment rate when the last Labour government left office was 8.8 per cent for men and 6.9 per cent for women (though it had been lower before the recession). But these figures consistently under-state the jobs shortfall.
In these statistics you are either in employment, unemployed or “economically inactive” and to be counted as unemployed you must have been looking for employment recently and able to start work at short notice. As you can imagine, there are plenty of people who want jobs, but fall foul of one of these rules and are therefore counted as “inactive”; women are particularly caught out by this definition, because they are so much more likely to be doing unpaid work, caring for children or sick, disabled or frail elderly friends or relatives.
As it happens, the monthly statistics do include the numbers of economically inactive people who “want work”, though these typically receive much less attention than the employment and unemployment figures. Typically, it turns out that one economically inactive person in four wants work and if you add them to the unemployment level you get a rough measure of labour market slack, often referred to as the “want work level”. (I say rough, because the Labour Force Survey doesn’t check how realistic people are being when they say they want a job.)
Typically, economically inactive men are more likely than women to say they want a job (28 per cent, compared with 24 per cent, in the latest figures) but there are far more economically inactive women of working age than men (5.6 million to 3.4 million) so the number of economically inactive women who want work is greater than the number of men in this position. In the latest figures, unemployed men outnumber unemployed women 999,000 to 834,000, but there are 1,346,000 economically inactive women who want work, compared with 955,000 men.
As a result, of the 4,134,000 people who “want work”, 56 per cent are women.
This is overwhelmingly because women are more likely to have caring responsibilities that preclude paid employment. There are 23,000 more male students who want work than women and 79,000 more men who are long-term sick but want jobs. But there are 447,000 more women than men who are economically inactive because they are “looking after family/home” and want work.
Why do I think this is an important issue?
Altogether there are 539,000 women in this position. There has been progress on this front – 20 years ago there were nearly a quarter of a million more. But just imagine how the country would benefit if we took the steps (like improving childcare availability and affordability) so that these women could get paid jobs. This would raise the employment rate to 74.7 per cent, not just the highest ever, but the highest by more than a percentage point.
And if they had jobs – showing it was possible – I’d guess that many of the one and a half million working age women looking after family/home who currently say paid employment isn’t for them might change their minds. The benefits in terms of women’s independent incomes would be enormous.
I think this is important because it’s a reminder that full employment isn’t a “men’s issue”. Sometimes you the campaign against unemployment is discussed in terms of “unemployed workers and their families”. Whether campaigners mean it or not, this is often heard as “unemployed men and their families”. These figures show that not having a job when you want one – which is the essence of what is bad about unemployment – affects women as much as men. A modern full employment strategy has to recognise the central importance of increasing employment opportunities for women – it will be interesting to see if the Chancellor’s definition of full employment takes this into account.