Tanweer Ali introduces Full Employment Revisited, a new collection of essays.

Tanweer Ali Critical Economics

Full employment was the goal of every government during the three decades following the Second World War but was swept away with the onset of the neoliberal turn that was consolidated into a consensus during the 1980s. Norman Lamont articulated the new view in the crudest terms when he told parliament in 1991 that unemployment was a price “well worth paying” to maintain low inflation. However, in recent years full employment has seen something of a comeback, with increasing political support for some form of job guarantee. Even George Osborne has affirmed his commitment to full employment.

Whilst this rhetorical commitment to a form of full employment is to be welcomed, we still need to fully understand what exactly we mean by the term. In her contribution to Full Employment Revisited, a new collection of essays on the theme, economist Pavlina Tcherneva recalls Beveridge’s view that full employment means “the existence of slightly more vacancies” than people seeking work. But is this definition fit for purpose in current times? The American jurist Philip Harvey, another contributor to Full Employment Revisited, has developed a comprehensive rights-based approach to the challenge of ensuring full employment. He sets out four dimensions of the right to work: quantitative, qualitative, distributive and scope. The first relates to the amount of work available, responding to Beveridge’s concern. Grappling with this involves looking beyond headline statistics. David Blanchflower’s and David Bell’s contribution have done just that, scrutinizing the phenomenon of underemployment—that of people working, but working fewer hours than they would like. Their research gives us a less rosy picture of the overall employment situation than the headline unemployment figure might indicate. Full consideration of the quantitative dimension also requires a broad macroeconomic perspective. John Grieve Smith and Sheila Dow provide an overview of economic fundamentals, challenging views that have long been received wisdom, both in economic policy debates and in public discourse, and debunking the rationale for austerity.

The qualitative dimension of the right to work requires us to consider the quality of work that we want to see available. Martin Taulbut demonstrates a strong correlation between unemployment and health, telling us, chillingly, that “for British districts it has been suggested the area-based measures of premature death and out-of-work benefits claims could be used interchangeably.” However, the link is not simply a matter of being in work or not. Taulbut makes a strong case for good quality jobs allowing a decent standard of living, with civilized pay and conditions.

The question of what kind of jobs we want leads us to the question of what kind of economy we want. Cambridge University economist Terry Barker links the financial crisis we have faced with the environmental crisis we are facing and argues forcefully for a transformation of our economy which will secure a sustainable long-term future and at the same time open up a whole new range of opportunities for a sustainable economy. He argues that we ought to abandon the pursuit of growth as a goal per se, instead focusing on environmental sustainability and full employment. Pavlina Tcherneva makes a similar point—that what policy makers have tended to pursue is growth, with full employment as a desirable side effect. Why not pursue full employment as a direct goal?

Examining the distributive dimension of the right to work, we need to consider questions of equity, non-discrimination and fairness. The TUC’s Richard Exell does this in the context of the broader welfare state. On the one hand, it would seem fair for the system to help those who find themselves out of work through no fault of their own; on the other hand, those in employment who are paying for this assistance need to be assured that they are not being exploited by free riders. Exell takes the standpoint of an imaginary outsider about to enter our world, but as yet ignorant of her situation, and considers what sort of arrangement such a person would logically prefer. The conclusion favours fair welfare provision as well as the availability of (and obligation to take) good quality jobs.

The way in which we frame concepts and use language is a key aspect of the fourth of Philip Harvey’s dimensions of the right to work, scope, or the range of activities which falls under the definition of work. A discourse dominated by words such as ‘jobs’ and ‘employment’ tends to disregard the reality that much, if not most, work is informal and unpaid. Moreover this work is largely done by women, so ‘work’ as traditionally viewed is inherently a gendered concept. A modern vision of full employment cannot contribute to moulding a fairer society unless it transcends the traditional, gendered concept of work and its rewards.

The collection closes with a contribution by the distinguished economist Geoff Harcourt, who aptly reminds us that achieving a society in which anyone who is willing to work should be able to find a job is a moral as well as an economic imperative. This debate is as much about what sort of society we want to build as it is about how we use our resources.

For more information about Full Employment Revised: Essays on the Economy, People and Fairness, including a link to purchasing the book, visit the Work Forum’s website.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Tanweer Ali

British finance lecturer working for the State University of New York, based in Prague.

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