The way society values labour is changing. Wage growth has stagnated, union membership is on a long-term decline and precarious work has become commonplace. Are we witnessing a hundred-year shift in the way we work? Chris Goodfellow investigates.
Wage growth has been anaemic for a decade
Wages haven’t grown since the financial crisis. Adjusted for inflation, average wages were £463 per week last year up from £458 from a year earlier but £10 lower than the pre-downturn peak of £473 per week.
The estimates don’t just tell us what employers are paying for certain job roles; they reflect changes in the overall structure of the workforce such as the amount of low-paid jobs and fluctuating hours.
The ten-year trend in wage growth - or lack of - has happened while labour force participation increases. The unemployment rate fell to 4.1% in Q3 2018 despite fear-mongering about Brexit and falling consumer confidence. This is heading towards historic lows last seen in the early 70s.
So why isn’t increased competition for staff raising prices?
The future of collective bargaining
The share of the workforce that are trade union members fell from 28% to 23% between 2007 and 2017. That meant that around six million employees in the UK were trade union members last year, well below the peak of 13 million in 1979 when Margret Thatcher was elected.
Trade union membership stabilised in the mid-2000s but hasn’t kept pace with the increase in employment. Declining union membership levels between 2007 and 2011 and in 2016 exacerbated this trend. Union leaders blame the loss of “good-quality jobs”, cuts to the public sector workforce and the rise of the gig economy.
In the medium term, the UK economy’s shift away from traditionally union-friendly sectors like manufacturing has been combined with anti-union legislation, a rapid increase in temporary staff and the use of zero-hours contracts.
The future for unions isn’t bright either. Union participation tends to be generational and the population of members is ageing. People that joined during the heyday of the labour movement are starting to retire. The generation that’s entered the workforce since the 2008 recession faces less stable employment without the back-up of unionisation.
This has the potential to compound the lack of wage growth, and there is some evidence of a link between falling union membership and pay inequality.
Technology rapidly disrupting the jobs market
Without resorting to scare stories, it’s a fact that robotics and AI are replacing workers. Even within highly-skilled professions like accounting, payroll and bookkeeping tasks are being replaced by easy-to-use cloud products – and those tools are learning.
These trends are manifesting themselves in the way we value businesses. Three of the world’s most valuable public companies are the San Francisco-headquartered Facebook, Alphabet and Apple. Over 2,000 miles away in Detroit the ageing giants of the automotive industry General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler have fallen down the rankings.
The tech labour force is a tiny fraction of the automotive industry, as The Atlantic pointed out. Today, the lesson from the market seems to be that value’s created by technology and is in no way tied to physical assets or job creation.
What does this mean for the future?
Unions – legal ones at least – have existed for around 200 years. Will they last another century? Will the UK’s productivity increase and wage growth return?
The minimum wage has been around since 1909. Both sides of the political spectrum are united in arguing for its increase. Perhaps we’ll see a world with limited union participation and workplace stability, but where employees receive a fair level of pay.
There’s some hope when it comes to collective bargaining too. The very tools that Google created to help the world work collaboratively allowed its own employees to plan a 20,000 person, international walkout in just three days.
In the UK it feels like we’re at a turning point. Public outcry over the treatment of employees and discrimination, and the groundswell of support from young voters for the Labour Party’s employment policies in last year’s election point to the public’s interest in the changes that are happening to the way we work.
What we need is a realistic, long-term policy debate on how low wage growth, automation and falling union participation are going to impact the way we value work. If we continue to undermine its value inequality and economic unrest will follow.
About Chris Goodfellow
Journalist and editor with eight years' experience covering politics and business. His work has been featured in a range of publications including The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Independent, the BBC and Vice magazine.