UK labour market data confirm that we are in an economic depression

Today has brought news that adds to my contention that the UK is experiencing an economic depression right now. We have to look deeper than the conventional signals because tight now some of them are not working. For example the official unemployment definition set by the International Labor Organisation or ILO is missing the target by quite a lot. To use a football analogy if they took a shot at goal they not only miss it but they miss the stand as well. This is why.

Under this definition, employment includes both those who are in work during the reference period and those who are temporarily away from a job. The number of people who are estimated to be temporarily away from work includes furloughed workers, those on maternity or paternity leave and annual leave.

As we stand that covers approximately an extra 4 million people which is a huge number compared to what are being reported as unemployed as you can see below.

Estimates for June to August 2020 show an estimated 1.52 million people were unemployed, 209,000 more than a year earlier and 138,000 more than the previous quarter.

This can be misleading for the unwary and I note that the BBC Economics Editor Faisal Islam has failed to note this development.

Sharp spike up in unemployment rate to 4.5%, above 1.5 million, after revisions and the headline numbers finally catching up with grim reality. Suggests monthly number in August as furlough unwound around 5%.

If you actually think the UK unemployment rate is either 4.5% or 5% then I have a bridge to sell you. Poor old Faisal looks completely lost at sea.

Unemployment still low by historic (3 year high) and international standards – but on way up…

It is in reality as I shall explain high but recently has fallen so he is wrong in every respect.

Hours Worked

The actual signal of a depression in the UK labour market is provided here which looks through the issue of the furlough scheme muddying the waters. Let us start with the better part of it which shows a post lockdown ( which just in case we should now call Lockdown 1.0) improvement.

Between March to May 2020 and June to August 2020, total actual weekly hours worked in the UK saw a record increase of 20.0 million, or 2.3%, to 891.0 million hours. Average actual weekly hours worked saw a record increase of 0.7 hours on the quarter to 27.3 hours.

However the overall picture is of a 15% fall in hours worked. Because is we look back to this time last year ( June to August for this purpose) the number of hours worked was 1.049.2 million. Sadly we get little detail on what is the most significant number right now and the maths is mine. The bit below hides more than it reveals.

Although decreasing over the year, total hours worked had a record increase on the quarter, with the June to August period covering a time when a number of coronavirus lockdown measures were eased.


These provide another clear signal as we note this.

Redundancies increased in June to August 2020 by 113,000 on the year, and a record 114,000 on the quarter, to 227,000. The annual increase was the largest since April to June 2009, with the number of redundancies reaching its highest level since May to July 2009.

So in round terms the rate of redundancies has doubled. There is also a hint that things are also getting worse.

The redundancies estimates measure the number of people who were made redundant or who took voluntary redundancy in the three months before the Labour Force Survey interviews; it does not take into consideration planned redundancies.

Pay as You Earn ( PAYE)

The tax data gives us another insight.

Early estimates for September 2020 indicate that there were 28.3 million payrolled employees, a fall of 2.2% compared with the same period in the previous year and a decline of 629,000 people over the 12-month period. Compared with the previous month, the number of payrolled employees increased by 0.1% in September 2020 – equivalent to 20,000 people.

As you can see these numbers are much more timely than the other labour market data which only reach March. It also shows much more of a change than the unemployment numbers but is still undermined somewhat by the existence of the furlough scheme. There will be payrolled employees who are being subsidised by the furlough scheme until the end of October.


These are giving the same signal as we note this.

In June to August 2020, the rate of annual pay growth was unchanged for total pay but positive 0.8% for regular pay. The difference between the two measures is because of subdued bonuses, which fell by an average negative 15.3% (in nominal terms) in the three months June to August 2020.

So pay growth is no longer negative as we note an unsurprising divergence between regular pay and bonuses. This compares to where we were pre pandemic as shown below.

The rate of growth stood at 2.9% in December 2019 to February 2020 immediately prior to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic,

We saw wages fall and now they are flatlining. This means that in real terms they are doing this according to the official release.

In real terms, total pay is growing at a slower rate than inflation, at negative 0.8%. Regular pay growth in real terms is now positive, at 0.1%.

So if we use a better inflation measure we see that real wages are falling by a bit more than 1% per annum. This means we are even further below the pre credit crunch peak as we note that this measure has experienced its own version of a Japanese style lost decade.

The aggregate numbers hide a few things as we note some substantial shifts within them.

The public sector saw the highest estimated growth, at 4.1% for regular pay. Negative growth was seen in the construction sector, estimated at negative 5.3%, the wholesaling, retailing, hotels and restaurants sector, estimated at negative 1.8%, and the manufacturing sector, estimated at negative 0.9%. This is, however, an improvement over the growth rates during May to July 2020.

We can learn more from the August data if we look at it as a single month. This is because wages rose from £531 per week to £550 meaning that they were 1.9% higher than a year before. A fair bit of this was the finance sector which saw weekly wages rise by £32 to £721. However there was also welcome news for construction up by £12 to £631 and the hospitality sector where they rose £8 to £364 per week.


Looking at properly today’s UK labour market release confirms the prognosis of the economic growth or GDP release from Friday. It is not that we lack some green shoots as the August wage data is one and this from the PAYE numbers adds to it albeit is too good to be true right now.

Early estimates for September 2020 indicate that median monthly pay increased to £1,905, an increase of 4.3% compared with the same period of the previous year.

But on the other side of the coin the annual fall in hours worked correlates with the decline in GDP we have seen pretty well. I hope that we can get through this more quickly than in the past but the reality is that these are falls of a size which indicate an economic depression. If reality is too much then you can take a Matrix style blue pill and follow the BBC reporting a 4.5% unemployment rate.

As a caveat all of these numbers are subject to wider margins of error right now. You may be surprised how few are surveyed for the main data source

One key data source for understanding the UK labour market is the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which usually covers around 35,000 households a quarter.

At the moment that will be less representative because in switching to a telephone based system they discovered a change that seems too big to be true.

Back in February around 67 per cent of households in their first interview in the LFS sample were owner occupiers and 32 per cent were renters. But in July this was around 77 per cent and 21 per cent respectively……… For tomorrow’s release we will therefore reweight the estimates so that the shares of owner occupiers and renters are the same as before the pandemic hit in March.