Tag Archives: employment

Quality of Life (2) – work and unemployment

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper, the first of which can be found here.

Taking the next three questions in one go next:

6. Should there be compulsory limits to working hours? Can employees make a genuinely free choice to opt-out of the European working time directive? Is it liberal to restrict how much we work?

7. Would a more flexible approach to working make a difference to people’s happiness? How would this be achieved without creating unnecessary bureaucracy?

8. Should we incentivise part-time jobs through NI or other employment tax breaks, especially to encourage employers to create senior part-time roles?

I have to admit that I don’t have much of a problem with the current working time directive (i.e. 48 hours). Most countries have worked perfectly well without the opt-out and the 17-week reference period stops the rule from being silly. There might be a few areas where we might allow for some exemptions but the current blanket opt-out option, in practice, seems as meaningless as the rules of shop workers working Sunday shifts (I worked in a shop full time when these rules were introduced. I was formally told I had the right to opt out but it was made very clear that anyone who did would be looked at unfavourably in the future). If a compromise could be brought forward between the opt-out and compulsory options I’d be open-minded about it, and I would certainly be sceptical about a France-style 35 hour week, but I would have little problem with the current European law.

With all that said, I do think there is a lot we could do to make it easier for both employers and employees. Fundamentally, we tax work far too much in this country while leaving wealth almost untouched. While this is the case there will always be pressure on employers to employ fewer people for more hours (as opposed to more people for less hours) and pressure on staff to work whatever hours they can. The right to flexible working is all very well, but are making it has hard as possible for people to be flexible. A liberal government would consider changing this to be a priority. The poor record of the Lib Dems in this respect has been deeply disappointing.

The party’s move towards lifting the poorest paid out of taxation is a long overdue step in the right direction (it should be noted that this was party policy in 1997) but I would like to see us go much further.

The 1992 Lib Dem manifesto, which more than anything else is the document which made me join the party, contained a commitment to a modest citizen’s income. I believe we should revisit this policy.

How would all this be paid for? The only way I can conceive is by establishing a national Land Value Tax, something which has been Lib Dem policy for a long time but which we have been very lukewarm about in recent years. Instead of cravenly following public opinion on this one, it is time we started to make the case for a fundamental shift in the burden of taxation. I really do believe it is an argument that can be won.

9. Are they ways we can promote greater employee responsibility for their work, and/or involvement in deciding how they work? How could we encourage staff stake-holding?

All the evidence I’ve read – and personal experience – indicates that greater democracy in the workforce leads to a happier workforce and greater efficiency. It would almost certainly also help control out of control executive pay in a way that crude mechanisms such as a “maximum wage” could not.

Again, in the not so distant past the Lib Dems had much stronger policy on this and the time is right to rediscover our passion for “industrial democracy.” This means much more emphasis on obliging companies to consult their workforce, share ownership schemes and mutualism.

10. How could quality of life thinking shape our approach to education, training and career choices?

This is a huge topic and I am not an expert in education. I certainly think we need to broaden apprenticeship training in this country. A shift away from income taxes would encourage this, as would greater workplace democracy.

Vocational qualifications such as MBAs can be fearfully expensive. Some employers are better than others at helping staff cover the cost of these. A great many employers are simply too small. I certainly think there is a case for government subsidising these qualifications through small businesses and non-profit organisations.

11. Should we have more public holidays or increased holiday entitlements? Or even statutory education and training days where employees would be free to pursue skills related either to their current job or future employment prospects?

A few more public holidays would bring us up to the European average. I’m not convinced about the need for statutory training days as the need for these would vary enormously depending on the employee and employer.

12. Technological developments have changed the way we work and at times can contribute to unemployment as companies need fewer people to do the same work. Would it be better for wellbeing if we reversed this trend?

I didn’t realise Ned Ludd was on the working group! Technological developments certainly can lead to structural unemployment in the long term but if anything the experience of the past 250 years points in the opposite direction: we are working longer hours than ever and are able to afford a welfare state. Technology also creates new types of work and will continue to do so in exciting ways. The fact that fewer people are working themselves to death in factories and farms than in the past is a good thing.

With that said, it does bear repeating that while companies are free to make whatever capital investment they wish, labour costs come with a deadweight cost. We should be less concerned about technology putting people out of work and more concerned about ensuring that the two are put on a level playing field. Once again, this means taxing labour less.

13. How can we tackle the stigma of unemployment?

14. Should employment policy be refocused on creating a more flexible employment market with more active government intervention, like Denmark, where it is easier for the unemployed to find new work and consequently less necessary to have high job protection? How would this be achieved?

15. Can we better use unemployment as an opportunity for people to retrain and gain new skills?

Unemployment should carry a stigma and there are too many parts of the country where it doesn’t have enough of one. That isn’t to say we should ever write people off – quite the opposite.

Again, I think a shift away from taxes on labour would help increase the fluidity of the labour market (I know I sound like a stuck record here, but this is the problem with answering each question in turn). This, combined with a citizens’ income would reduce the disincentive within the benefits system to take on low paid work.

We also need to remove the barriers for internships and volunteer work. Currently in my experience the system all but discourages these by forcing people to do less than 16 hours a week and insisting on a paper trail. Yet such activity ought to be encouraged – even incentivised. We could even extend this to political parties: there are much worse things people could be doing with their time than actively working within their communities.

I don’t know enough about the Danish system. Since the working group is clearly looking at this model, it would have been useful to have an explanation, or at least a footnote for us to explore in more detail.

The demographics of Um?

I meant to blog about the Centre for Um discussion paper on demographic change by Alasdair Murray a couple of months ago, but I ended up getting distracted. As part of my general post-holiday catch-up, I thought I’d get my comments off my chest now, but as it was a while since I read the paper, I’m a little rusty.

On specifics, I don’t quibble with a lot of what the paper is saying. It is surely correct to point out the problems of simplistically emphasising how the aging population will lead to more elderly dependents on the economy without looking at how other dependents (the young, the economically inactive) effect the economy at the same time. I don’t think any liberals question the need to scrap the fixed retirement age of 65 (socialists are another matter – I seem to recall Labour activists queuing up to denounce this at their last autumn conference). I agree also with the need to bring more young people into the labour market – a stark contrast with Labour’s obsession with giving 50% of the population a (potentially worthless) university degree and raising the school leaving age to 18. There certainly should be an emphasis on skilling young people, but that should be done in the workplace, not in pseudo-universities (on which point, can I recommend Geoffrey Wheatcroft‘s article on the subject last week: “Those who insist that expanding higher education is virtuous in itself never stop to say why this should be so. And they never explain why it should be better to be a third-rate media studies graduate than a first-rate carpenter.”).

It is the wider arguments of the paper that trouble me. First of all, the bland claim that “pessimistic predictions about Europe’s demographic future overstate the problem in most countries and ignore the potential to adapt.” That is half true, but how are we to adapt if we ignore the pessimistic predictions? Alasdair Murray points out that a number of countries have already dealt with the “pensions time bomb” in their policies, but this has to be at least partially because of the scare reports that have been dribbling out over the past 20 years and more. This doesn’t prove them wrong: it proves their worth.

More irritatingly, I can’t go along with his bald assertion that inter-generational conflict isn’t worth bothering with. He bases this on two lines of argument: that there is little evidence of an emerging conflict, and that young people are better educated, richer and have higher rates of employment than their parents.

The first argument is just plain daft; it’s the Nelson defence (“I see no ships”). To start with, it depends where you look and what you’re looking at. What’s more, the fact that there is little tension now is not to say that there won’t be tension in the future.

The second argument misses the point that it isn’t incomes that we are quibbling about, but assets. Those subsidised right-to-buy homes people bought in the 80s simply do not exist. Greater earning potential is one thing, but if the economy drives people into habitual debt – thousands just to get “credit rating”, tens of thousands on graduation, hundreds of thousands of mortgage debt – that leaves very little at the end to build a nest egg. I’ll come onto the underlying assumption in the paper that population growth is an unalloyed good in a moment, but assuming that is the case for a moment, it is surprising that he appears to have missed the growing evidence that one of the main reasons that people are starting families later in life now is because they struggle to afford the housing; indeed housing is barely mentioned either in the paper as a whole, or in the section on inter-generational conflict.

Worst of all, he parrots that old canard about wealth cascading down the generations. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this: that’s the problem. Because people don’t, as a general rule, spread their wealth evenly to the younger generation: unsurprisingly they favour their children. This entrenches privilege, deepens the divide between rich and poor and, by putting wealth in the hands of ever fewer families and individuals, is a potentially catastrophic cause of social immobility. No-one is questioning that the millionaire couple who profited from the buy-to-let boom will eventually hand their assets over to their children; what we’re questioning is whether they should be the beneficiaries and what economic impact it will have further down the line.

The biggest single omission however is that this paper does not mention the environment, climate change and the management of natural resources. At all. I’m amazed that you can even write a paper on demographics without mentioning these things. A dry debate about immigration is one thing, but what do we do if Bangladesh goes underwater and Africa becomes an arid dustbowl? Where do the people go? What if they decide to come here? Cheery forecasts about pensions is one thing, but what about peak oil? Europe’s stagnating population is one thing, but global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050 (it seems like only yesterday when we reached the 6 bn mark – now we’re at 6.6 bn).

You may argue that all these big questions go beyond a simple paper on the economics of European demographics; I accept that they would have lead to a substantially different paper. What I do seriously question however is how the paper can assume that population growth is a good thing that policy makers should aim for. The paper does not oppose pro-natal policies, just the practicalities of the more crude of these (such as Germany’s tax system). Instead, it recommends policies that “best create the conditions where fertility rates might rise by removing structural obstacles to female labour market participation”.

I’m not in favour of radical anti-natal policies such as China’s one child policy, let alone anything more draconian. Nor do I believe in putting obstacles in the way of “female labour market participation” with a view to reducing fertility rates. I do however feel that population growth and environmental sustainability are heading for a full on collision, that one will have to give way to the other and that if the species is to survive in the long term, it had better be the latter. How do we develop genuinely liberal anti-natal policies? And if those policies are successful, won’t they exacerbate the problems associated with an aging population (if fertility rates dropped significantly, the average age would increase quite rapidly)?

In short, while he has some good points, Alasdair Murray’s pamphlet is exactly the wrong paper at the wrong time. It sets out to deal with a problem which, from the outset, it asserts has already been solved, and fails to answer the important questions relating to demographics that we need to be answering in the 21st century.