The UK underemployment rate rose as high as 18%

At a time of great uncertainty and not a little worry for many we should be able to turn to official statistics for at least a benchmark. Sadly the Covid-19 pandemic has found them to be wanting in many respects. Let me illustrate this with an example from the BBC.

The UK unemployment rate has risen to its highest level for two years, official figures show.

The unemployment rate grew to 4.1% in the three months to July, compared with 3.9% previously.

There are all sorts of problems with this right now which essentially come from the definition.

Unemployment measures people without a job who have been actively seeking work within the last four weeks and are available to start work within the next two weeks.

During this period many will not bother to look for work as for example some think they still have a job.

Last month, we reported on a group of employees who, because of the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, have reported that they are temporarily away from work and not getting paid. Similarly, there is a group of self-employed people who are temporarily away from work but not eligible for the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS). Although these people consider themselves to have a job and therefore are consistent with the ILO definition of employment, their lack of income means that they may soon need to look for work unless they are able to return to their job.

A sort of job illusion for some with the problem being is how many? I would like all of them to return to their jobs but also know they will not. The concept though can be widened if we add in the furlough scheme which was designed to save jobs but as a by product has driven a bus through the employment and unemployment data.

The number of people who are estimated to be temporarily away from work (including furloughed workers) has fallen, but it was still more than 5 million in July 2020, with over 2.5 million of these being away for three months or more. There were also around 250,000 people away from work because of the pandemic and receiving no pay in July 2020.

So we are unsure about 5 million workers which dwarfs this.

Estimates for May to July 2020 show an estimated 1.40 million people were unemployed, 104,000 more than a year earlier and 62,000 more than the previous quarter.

So we see that the number is simply way too low which means that all of the estimates below are at best misleading and in the case of the employment rate outright laughable.

the estimated employment rate for all people was 76.5%; this is 0.4 percentage points up on the year and 0.1 percentage points up on the quarter…….the estimated UK unemployment rate for all people was 4.1%; this is 0.3 percentage points higher than a year earlier and 0.2 percentage points higher than the previous quarter…….the estimated economic inactivity rate for all people was 20.2%, a joint record low; this is down by 0.6 percentage points on the year and down by 0.3 percentage points on the quarter

The economic inactivity measure is perhaps the worst because the worst level of inactivity in my lifetime is being recorded as a record low. This embarrasses the Office for National Statistics as we are in “tractor production is rising” territory.

What can we use?

A measure which is working pretty well seems to be this.

Between February to April 2020 and May to July 2020, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK decreased by 93.9 million to 866.0 million hours. Average actual weekly hours fell by 2.8 hours on the quarter to 26.3 hours.

This shows a much larger change than that suggested by the official unemployment measure. We can in fact learn more by looking further back.

Over the year, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK decreased by 183.8 million to 866.0 million hours in the three months to July 2020. Over the same period, average actual weekly hours fell by 5.8 hours to 26.3 hours.

On this measure we see that if we put this into the employment numbers we would see a fall approaching 6 million. So in effect the underemployment rate was in fact heading for 18%. If we simply assume that half of it was unemployment we have an unemployment rate of 11% which in economic terms I am sure we did. Now the economy is more open perhaps it is 7-8%.

The 8% unemployment rate does get some support from this.

Between July 2020 and August 2020, the Claimant Count increased by 73,700 (2.8%) to 2.7 million (Figure 10). Since March 2020, the Claimant Count has increased by 120.8% or 1.5 million.

It is hard not to have a wry smile as I type that because back in the mid 1980s Jim Hacker in Yes Minister told us nobody believes the unemployment figures and those are the one he was referring to. There are other references to that sort of thing as well.

Hacker: The school leaving age was raised to 16 so that they could learn more, and they’re learning less!

Sir Humphrey: We didn’t raise it to enable them to learn more! We raised it to keep teenagers off the job market and hold down the unemployment figures.


The opening salvo is less than reassuring.

The rate of decline in employee pay growth slowed in July 2020 following strong falls in the previous three months;

We find that the pattern is what we would be expecting.

Growth in average total pay (including bonuses) among employees was negative 1.0% in May to July, with annual growth in bonus payments at negative 21.4%; however, regular pay (excluding bonuses) was positive at 0.2%.

It has been the public sector which has stopped the numbers being even worse.

Between May to July 2019 and May to July 2020, average pay growth varied by industry sector . The public sector saw the highest estimated growth, at 4.5% for regular pay. Negative growth was seen in the construction sector, estimated at negative 7.5%, the wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants sector, estimated at negative 3.2%, and the manufacturing sector, estimated at negative 1.7%.

However there was an improvement for many in July.

 For the construction, manufacturing, and the wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants sectors, the July 2020 estimate of annual growth shows sign of improvement when compared with May to July 2020.

If we look at the construction sector then weekly wages rose from £573 in June to £620 in July so there was quite a pick-up of which £10 was bonuses.

Switching to an estimate of real pay we are told this.

In real terms, total pay growth for May to July was negative 1.8% (that is, nominal total pay grew more slowly than inflation); regular pay growth was negative 0.7%.

Although those numbers rely on you believing the inflation numbers which I do not.


We have found that the official ILO ( International Labor Organisation) methodology to have failed us in this pandemic. Even worse no effort has been made to fix something we have been noting ( in this instance looking at Italy) since the third of June.

and unemployment sharply fell

If you actually believe unemployment fell in Italy in April I not only have a bridge to sell you I may as well sell the river as well.

Looking at the data suggests an underemployment rate of the order of 20% in the UK giving us an actual unemployment rate perhaps double the recorded figure.

If we switch to pay and wages we need to remind ourselves of those who are not counted. For example the self-employed and companies with less than ten employees. Such omissions did not bother the Dr.Martin Weale review back in the day but perhaps one of the ONS Fellows could help like er Dr.Martin Weale. We are back to reliving Yes Minister again.

Meanwhile according to Financial News some are resorting to desperate measures to get GDP rising again.

‘It could get really messy’: Finance workers’ cocaine use spikes in lockdown

The problems of student debt and loans are mounting

The UK university system is facing trouble on more than a few fronts. Some are struggling full stop as we note talk that they will not be bailed out. That comes on top of the issue of student loans and debt which makes me wonder how useful a degree is these days? Especially at a time of struggling real wages.  Although wages for some do not seem to be a problem. From UK Parliament in June of this year.

A table of vice-chancellors’ salaries in the Times Higher Education in June 2017 showed that Dame Glynis Breakwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bath was the highest paid university vice-chancellor in the UK; in 2016-17 she was paid a salary of £451,000. The table showed that vice-chancellors at six other universities also earned over £400,000 in that year.

Average pay was found to be £290,000 including pension contributions. You may recall that the University Superannuation Scheme became a hot topic for a while as there were strikes after suggestions that defined benefits needed to end. That was eventually resolved with higher contributions ( but not as high as originally suggested). Previously the total was 26% of salary split 18% employer and 8% employee.

The panel recommended that DB pensions could continue to be offered with contributions rising to 29 per cent — significantly lower than the 36.6 per cent from April 2020 proposed by USS, based on the valuation as it stands. ( Financial Times)

As an aside it was a shame that the Bank of England was not contacted as its research could be used to show that in fact such pensions have benefited from its policies. In spite of course of that fact that its Chief Economist Andy Haldane confessed to not understanding them. Oh well!

Moving on, payoffs to Vice-Chancellors had become an issue such as the £429,000 payoff at Bath Spa, £230,000 at the University of Sussex, and £186,876 at Birmingham City University. Coming back to pay the HM Parliament research showed that Vice-Chancellor pay had risen at an annual rate of 3.2% when other academic staff were restricted to 0.7%.

Student Debt

A glimpse of a potential future can be seen in the United States. Last night the US Federal Reserve updated us on total student debt at the end of the third quarter and it was US $1.563 trillion. One perspective is provided by the number below it for total motor loans which is a relatively mere £1.142.8 trillion. In terms of past comparisons the number for 2013 was £1.145.6 trillion for US student loans.

Noah Opinion on Bloomberg looked at it like this.

Many educated millennials would likely agree — since 2006, student debt has approximately doubled as a share of the economy……..The increase seems to have paused in the past two years, possibly due to the economic recovery (which allows students and their families to pay more tuition out of current income) and a modest  decline in college enrollment. But the burden is still very large, and interest rates on student-loan debt are fairly high.

His chart shows student debt being around 7.5% of US Gross Domestic Product and I can update his view because unless the US economy is growing at an annual rate of 5.6% then the burden is rising again.

Also the repayment issue is similar to that we have and indeed are experiencing in the UK.

Education researcher Erin Dunlop Velez crunched data that was recently released by the Department of Education, and found that only half of students who went to college in 1995-6 had paid off their loans within 20 years. Given the vast increase in the size of loans since then, repayment rates are likely to be even worse if nothing is done. Velez also found that default rates are considerably higher than had been thought.

There is another familiar feature.

What’s more, student lending has almost certainly contributed to the rise in college tuition, which has outpaced overall inflation by a lot. When the government lends students money, or encourages private lenders to do the same, it increases demand for college, pushing up the price.

In the  UK a lot of the inflation came in one go.

In the 2012/13 academic year, students beginning their studies could be charged up to a maximum fee of £9000 for first year courses compared with a maximum of £3375 in
2011/12 ( Office for National Statistics).

Whilst the weighting for university fees is low the substantial rise had an impact on the overall numbers.

In total, university tuition fees for UK and EU students added 0.31 percentage points to the change in CPI
inflation between September and October 2012. This was the largest component of the rise in the headline rate from 2.2 to 2.7%.

The CPI measure was particularly affected as it includes international and European Union students whereas the RPI only has UK ones meaning that the weight is around three times higher. That becomes quite an irony as we note the invariably higher ( ~ 1% per annum) RPI is used in the interest-rate on student loans. The road from being “not a national statistic” to being useful is short when it is something the public are paying or indeed Bank of England pensioners are receiving.


Let me start with some welcome good news. The Times Higher Education rankings show Oxford University at number one with Cambridge second and Imperial College ninth. My alma mater the LSE slide in at number 26. So we are getting something right as whilst it feels by hook or by crook our universities are highly regarded around the world. I think we do that a lot as we focus on issues ( the impact of the PPE degree course at Oxford on our political class) and maybe lose vision on the wider picture. Our institutions are often highly regarded around the world.

Also many more people are going to university as this from Gil Wyness at the LSE points out.

The UK has dramatically increased the supply of graduates over the last four decades. The proportion of workers with higher education has risen from only 4.7% in 1979 to 28.5% in 2011 (Machin, 2014). Rather than this enormous increase in supply reducing the value of a degree, the pay of graduates relative to non-graduates has risen over the same period: from 39% to 56% for men and from 52% to 59% for women).

However the issue of pay is a complex one as of course overall pay growth has slowed which if the workforce has become better qualified looks even worse. Also there is this which needs some revision I would suggest.

The expansion of universities helped raise growth and productivity (Besley and Van Reenen,

The financing side is much more shambolic though. The upside of the student loans era was supposed to make universities compete more, does anyone believe that now? Next comes the issue that a high interest-rate (6.3%) is used to raise the debt calculated like this by HM Parliament.

Currently more than £16 billion is loaned to around one million higher education students in England each year. The value of outstanding loans at the end of March 2018
reached £105 billion. The Government forecasts the value of outstanding loans to be reach around £450 billion (2017-18 prices) by the middle of this century.

No wonder the Bank of England dropped consumer loans from its credit figures! But more fundamentally debt is supposed to be repaid and yet we know most of this never will be. Yet along the way it will affect those who have it should they look to buy a house or have other borrowing.

The average debt among the first major cohort of post-2012 students to become liable for repayment was £32,000. The Government expects that 30% of current full-time undergraduates who take out loans will repay them in full.

The anthem for this comes from Twenty One Pilots.

Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out
Wish we could turn back time, to the good old days
When our momma sang us to sleep but now we’re stressed out