Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Job insecurity isn't as great as you imagine

As everyone knows, the world of work just gets tougher. For a start there's the ever-growing incidence of "precarious employment" – people in casual jobs, or on short-term contracts, or working for labour-hire companies or temping agencies, or being cast adrift by their employer without benefits as supposedly self-employed.

If you do have one of the ever-scarcer full-time, permanent jobs, you're probably working a lot longer hours than you used to. Unpaid, I'll be bound.

These days, no one stays in the same job – even the same occupation – for very long. More and more people are being made redundant. A young person leaving education can expect to have many different jobs before finally they retire at 70.

It won't be long before many people don't so much have a job as a portfolio of jobs – different things they do for different outfits in any week or month, hoping that when they add it all together it amounts to a reasonable living.

All pretty terrible, eh? There's just one problem – it might be what everyone knows, but none of it's true.

Two profs at the University of Melbourne's Melbourne Institute, Roger Wilkins and Mark Wooden, have looked at the figures and they question all we think we know. Their findings were published in the Australian Economic Review.

It is true we have a lot of part-time and casual employment in Australia – more than in most other rich countries – much of it done by mothers with young families and students who aren't wanting a full-time job. And, these days, by people in semi-retirement.

It's also true that the number of part-time and casual jobs grew rapidly for several decades. It's still growing, but much more slowly.

According to the authors' reading of the figures, over the 10 years to 2013 the proportion of men working part-time has increased by 2 percentage points to just under 18 per cent, while the portion of women has been steady at almost 48 per cent.

While most part-timers are also casuals, the two groups don't overlap completely. The Bureau of Statistics defines casual employment as not receiving paid annual leave and sick leave. Its figures show that, for men, the proportion of casuals has been relatively steady since the late 1990s, fluctuating about 20 per cent. Among women the share has fallen from about 31 per cent to less than 27 per cent.

The annual household, income and labour dynamics in Australia – HILDA – survey shows that more than two-thirds of workers were in permanent or ongoing employment in 2012, an increase of 1.5 percentage points since 2001, when the survey began.

HILDA suggests the share of labour-hire and temporary-employment agency jobs has fallen over that time from 3.7 per cent to 2.7 per cent. (It would be much higher than that in particular industries, of course.)

Nor can Wilkins and Wooden find any evidence that there's been a shift away from employment to greater use of self-employment. Indeed, the stats bureau's figures show the proportion of self-employed in the workforce has been steadily declining over the past 20 years, from 14 per cent to 10 per cent in 2013.

Turning to overwork, there was a time when it was increasing (which got a lot of media publicity), but since then it's been declining (which has got little).

Among men working full-time, the proportion working no more than 40 hours a week increased from 52 per cent to 58 per cent over the 10 years to 2013. The proportion working more than 50 hours fell from 31 per cent to 27 per cent.

That's still a lot, of course. But remember that the people you'd most expect to be working long hours are managers and highly skilled professionals, and these have long been the two fastest-growing occupations. Such people rarely get paid overtime. Rather, the long hours they work are reflected in their hefty annual salaries.

Then there's the widespread perception that these days people are always losing their jobs and having to move on. When employers announce mass layoffs it invariably gets much attention from the media. When there's nothing to announce it gets no attention.

The stats bureau's figures for average job duration and rates of job mobility show little sign that jobs have become less stable, the authors say. In February 2013, just 18 per cent of the employed had been in their job for less than a year, down from 22 per cent in 1994.

In the latest figures, just over one worker in four had been in their job for at least 10 years, up from 23.6 per cent in 1994.

Of course, how long people stay in the same jobs is determined by both dismissals and quits. If jobs are becoming less secure you'd expect dismissals to be up and voluntary departures down.

Both of these vary with the ups and downs of the business cycle but, even so, they've tended to decline. In February 2013, fewer than 3 per cent of all the people who'd had a job in the previous 12 months had been retrenched.

The proportion losing their jobs for any reason was 6 per cent. About 10 per cent of people had quit their jobs.

There are a lot of problems in the world, including the world of work, but let's not imagine more than actually exist.