Opinion

Edward Hadas

Time to retire unemployment

Edward Hadas
Aug 20, 2014 09:25 UTC

Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Give Janet Yellen credit. The chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve is keen to use monetary policy to help get more people into good jobs. Her priority – work is more important than finance – is reflected in the subject of this week’s get-together for the world’s central bankers: “Re-Evaluating Labor Market Dynamics.” One item should be on the agenda of the distinguished guests at Jackson Hole, Wyoming: how to replace the concept of unemployment.

The suggestion may sound frivolous, but the idea of a simple measure of unemployment is tied to a wrong view of how modern economies work. The unemployment rate made sense in developed economies a century ago, when workers were men who wanted full-time jobs as soon as they finished school, and to continue until they died or retired. In that world, unemployment was easy to define – working-age men without a job.

That binary split of employed and unemployed no longer exists. Many people nowadays drift in and out of paid jobs, shifting back and forth from full to part-time work. Some move in and out of the legal economy. Transient self-employment is common. Retirement is a flexible concept. Parents and other carers sometimes balance paid and unpaid labour.

Students, prisoners or disabled people at any time could and might want to work for pay. And paid employment cannot always be interpreted as a sign of a well-functioning labour market: jobs may be precarious, ill-suited to the worker’s skills, or pay less than a living wage.

Favour labour over consumption

Edward Hadas
Nov 13, 2013 16:09 UTC

Unemployment is a problem in most developed economies. Any politician, central banker or professional economist in the United States or Europe will admit that the published rates are unacceptably high, that too many people have left the paid labour force and that young people starting out have a particularly bad deal.

Americans often say their problem was caused by the 2008 financial crisis. That isn’t exactly wrong. After the failure of Lehman Brothers, many indicators of labour market depression – for example, the proportion of unemployed people who have been unemployed for more than six months – jumped to the highest levels on record (generally since 1948). Most of these indicators have improved, but remain uncomfortably high.

However, I think that the recession only uncovered longstanding structural weaknesses, and the problems I have in mind are not exclusively American. They just showed up in European statistics much earlier. Unemployment rates there have been persistently high, especially among the young, for decades. And the recorded unemployment numbers are flattered everywhere by the expansion of what might be called the non-labour force: those classified as suffering from incapacity, involuntary students and healthy retirees.

Rana Plaza and union labels

Edward Hadas
May 8, 2013 14:34 UTC

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a turning point in the history of American labour relations. It led directly to a slew of new laws on safety and labour practices in New York State, and indirectly to a less exploitative approach to industrial labourers throughout the country. Last month’s Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh, where the collapse of a clothing factory killed more than 700 people, demonstrates that the lessons need to be learned again, this time on a global scale.

It is not a coincidence that both these accidents involved the garment trade. This is an industry of mostly small, poorly capitalised companies, which jostle against each other in a long and rapidly shifting supply chain. Retailers shop around aggressively, suppliers sub-contract freely and the price pressure is relentless. No one takes responsibility, and it can seem like almost everyone involved is irresponsible.

It does not need to be like this. In the first few decades after Triangle, the common good increasingly prevailed in the clothing trade in the United States, and eventually in other rich countries. Trade unions protected workers, customers learned to pay enough for their clothes to support fair wages, and price competition was muted.

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