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Tell-tale signs that UK slowdown is here to stay

For about as long as countries have been having recessions, one pattern has consistently appeared in the jobs data: when the economy contracts, employment falls faster and further among men than women and the male employment rate takes longer to recover. In fact, in some instances female employment doesn’t even fall, merely experiencing a slowdown in growth instead.

Economists have debated the reasons. The most commonly cited is that men are more likely than women to work in industries sensitive to contraction. But men tend to fare worse than women even within an industry.

As countries entered and exited their pandemic-induced recessions, that particular pattern has been conspicuously absent. In country after country, employment rates dipped simultaneously and by the same magnitude for both sexes, and have since rebounded in near-lockstep.

This makes sense: the pandemic recession was a special case. Jobs were lost or put on pause while people’s ability to go out and spend money was temporarily constrained. But as society and machinery whirred into motion, back came the jobs. In some senses, these were not true recessions — there was always a light at the end of the tunnel, meaning the usual cyclical swings were significantly damped.

But there is one country where these tell-tale recession markers of different patterns in male vs female employment have appeared again: the UK.

Female employment rates in the UK barely budged as the pandemic hit, while male rates plummeted. This is especially true if we focus on “prime-age” employment — people aged 25 to 54 — which is not subject to the effects of large numbers of early retirees.

Chart showing that in a typical recession like 2008, male employment rates fall first, fastest and for longest. Covid-era contractions have been shorter and more similar across the sexes, but one country shows the tell-tale pattern from 2008: the UK

The employment rate among prime-age British men is 89 per cent, a full point below its pre-pandemic level, up slightly on the 2 point deficit of late 2020, but still a year or more away from a full recovery on current trends. By contrast, female employment had rebounded past its previous high by mid-2021.

It’s a similar story if we use other indicators of bona-fide recessions such as the difference in employment rates by education levels. In the US, employment rebounded just as quickly (if not quicker) among people without a high school diploma as it did among the highly skilled. In the UK, employment among graduates is back above its pre-pandemic high, but the rate among those who left school at 16 is down by a huge 2 percentage points and still falling.

Chart showing that it’s a similar story with skills: where other countries saw speedy recoveries across the spectrum, employment among Britain’s lowest-skilled is still falling

To date, discussion of Britain’s faltering labour market recovery has focused on early retirement among the over-50s — a head-scratcher for policymakers to be sure, but mainly driven by comfortable Britons making a quality-of-life decision. Zoom out a little, though, and there is clear cause for concern.

Britain may not dip back into recession this year, but while other countries clamber back on to their pre-pandemic trajectories, the age-old warning lights of a prolonged downturn are flashing.

john.burn-murdoch@ft.com, @jburnmurdoch

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