Recent news from the UK tells us that the country’s unemployment level is at an 11-year low and employment is at an all-time high.
This is of course great news, but let’s pause for a moment before we get too excited and delve a bit deeper. According to a report in The Independent the amount of people working on zero hour contracts has soared recently.
A zero-hour contract is an agreement between an employer and a worker, with no guarantee of minimum working hours or regular pay.
Those employed on such contracts do not enjoy a regular wage or basic employee’s rights. And the UK economy does not benefit as much from their employment - or from those who are self-employed - as less tax and national insurance is paid by these two groups of workers in the UK - I’ll try to explain later why that matters.
Apparently the most recent records show that in excess of three million people work in insecure jobs, that’s 10 percent of the current UK work force - and that’s up from 2.4 million in 2011.
And that gap is likely to leave a massive hole in the public purse as the population gets older and more people are retired than working, placing an even heavier burden on society and pushing the British welfare system to the very limits - I for one have no clue how I’m going to afford to live.
The UK seems to be approaching a situation so dire that I’m not sure anyone really knows how big a problem it will actually be - because a lot of us will hit retirement at the same time – and who’s going to look after us?Peter Harrison
No significant earnings growth
With the sudden rise in firms like Uber there has been a significant increase in the number of people taken out of unemployment in the UK - but not guaranteed a regular wage.
It’s also worth mentioning that growth in weekly earnings in the UK has remained at about 2 to 4 percent since mid-to-late 2004 except for a few occasions where this grew to between 4 and 6 percent until it plummeted in 2009 to -2 percent according to some economists.
Now I’m not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but in my limited understanding the recent headlines heralding an 11-year dip in unemployment and an all-time high in employment are misleading to say the least.
What does this all mean? Good question… No matter how irritating they might well be - the millennials and those that came after - Generation ‘Z’ - seem to be looking toward a ticking time bomb and it wasn’t one of their own making.
By all accounts those old enough to work are earning some seriously low wages - including graduates, who, incidentally, also have the worse debts ever experienced by British graduates.
In November, the Huffington Post UK quoted Paul Johnson, the Institute for Fiscal Studies director, who said people in the UK were in the “worst situation for people’s pay since the end of the Second World War - or possibly longer”.
He said: “Overall real average earnings are forecast to rise by less than 5 percent between now and 2021. That means they will be 3.7 percent lower in 2021 than was projected in March”.
But what about the state pension?
I don’t know what I am going to do in the future with regards to retirement and truth be known, I’m genuinely quite worried.
But wait - in the UK there’s a pension system I hear you say - yes there is - at the moment. But being a member of the Generation X/Baby Boomers age group - we are about to pose the biggest strain on the UK economy that has been seen in my lifetime (and possibly during my parents’ and grandparents’ lifetimes too).
And that is why the shortfall in funds being paid into the UK’s public purse now is such a problem. The UK seems to be approaching a situation so dire that I’m not sure anyone really knows how big a problem it will actually be - because a lot of us will hit retirement at the same time – and who’s going to look after us?
I am also worried for my nieces and nephews who will be faced with mounting debts whether as a result of going to university, or an increasingly broad gap between the cost of living and wages.
It’s not all doom and gloom - the current situation - including the advancement of technology - has led to a move of people going into start-ups. I certainly know a lot more people who work on a freelance or self-employed basis, now than I can recall having been the case before.
And those people who are employed on this basis do seem to enjoy the flexibility and freedoms that it provides them with. But it is certainly not a form of employment that suits everyone.
There’s a problem in the UK that needs to be fixed, otherwise I fear it will continue going round in eternal circles. The 1980s was a big time for small businesses and people going freelance, so was the dot-com era and now with the so-called Gig economy where people are working on short-term contracts or have become self-employed. They were all very different times with one common denominator – the public purse grew increasingly thin.
Someone I know, who recently moved back to the UK, told me they believed the country felt prosperous right now - I wish they were right. But with housing, pensions, earnings and secure jobs all in a state of disarray (yes there’s an ongoing housing crisis there too) I fear the recent jubilation over record employment levels is little more than a smoke screen hiding the reality.
Peter Harrison is a British photojournalist whose career spans three decades, working for print, digital and broadcast media in the UK and the UAE. He's covered a broad spectrum of subjects, from health issues and farming in England, to the refugee crisis in Lebanon and the war in Afghanistan. He is a senior editor with Al Arabiya English and tweets @PhotoPJHarrison.