The case for full employment

05 September 2011

Martin Taulbut examines the links between unemployment and ill-health.

Work is good for your health. The Glasgow Indictors site provides a vivid illustration that the city lacks both. So why isn’t there more talk about the case for full employment?

Full employment occurs where there are more vacancies than people seeking jobs, unemployment levels are low and geographic differences in employment opportunities are minimal. If necessary, governments directly intervene to create jobs. It has happened before. During the 1950s and 1960s, UK unemployment hovered around 2%. In 1971, Glasgow City’s male employment rate was similar to Edinburgh’s (In 2011, it was 10 percentage points lower). But in the 1970s, amid rising unemployment, governments (and citizens) seemed less willing to believe that full employment was possible – or even if it was, that its drawbacks were too high.

Instead, the modern approach is to improve ‘employability’: to persuade, support or coerce people off benefits and into the labour market. Without jobs, this is a risky strategy for health. Oxfam, Citizens Advice Scotland and the House of Commons have all highlighted the limitations of re-branding Incapacity Benefit claimants as ‘fit to work’. The risk of mental health problems and mortality is much higher among the jobless than those in work. Where demand for labour is weak, the young, less healthy and less skilled find themselves at the back of the queue for jobs. In Glasgow, the GoWell report provided a reminder that on the city’s peripheral estates, half the male working-age population was not in work or full-time education in 2008.   

Part of the challenge means confronting the view that much worklessness is voluntary: attributable to laziness or to an over-generous benefits system. Although said with less confidence since the economic downturn began in 2008, the view that ‘they just don’t want to work’ is still widespread. Even in the good times, the real level of unemployment in Glasgow stood at 53,000, while employers reported just 10,000 vacancies. And far from rewarding idleness, the real value of unemployment benefits and Incapacity Benefits has flat-lined since the 1970s. 

By itself, full employment is unlikely to reduce the so-called ‘Glasgow effect’ – the excess of deaths in West Central Scotland (WCS) compared to comparable areas. European regions and cities which were exposed to a similar or worse trauma of deindustrialisation as WCS, such as Nord-pas-de-Calais in France, Silesia in Poland or Merseyside in England have managed to improve their health at a faster rate than us over the past 30 years. What it might help to do, however, is reduce inequalities in mortality within West Central Scotland. Young adult mortality from alcohol misuse, suicide and violence is especially high in this part of the world, and is concentrated in its poorest neighbourhoods - those same neighbourhoods where worklessness is highest. 

This isn’t to argue for a wholesale resurrection of past policies. Would modern Clydesiders welcome a return to a full employment built on dirty, dangerous and physically exhausting work where women are excluded from the labour market? The growth in post-secondary education and rising female employment rates suggests not. The full employment of the past also rested on cheap energy, with little regard for the environment. Peak oil and the prospect of resource conflicts mean repeating this is also an unlikely prospect. Instead, perhaps what we should think about is the spirit of full employment. This would start from the idea that the labour market is here to serve people, not the other way around. It would mean ensuring there is enough ‘decent work’, paying a living wage and offering a degree of respect and autonomy, for everyone who wants a job. It could also involve the kind of targeted, large-scale job creation scheme outlined by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research.

It’s forty years since Jimmy Reid led the men of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders on the Clyde in their famous work-in. In rejecting the dole, they were fighting to preserve the system of full employment that had existed since the war. So it might seem quaint to talk about full employment in of 2011 – but perhaps it’s time to reconsider.


About the author

Martin Taulbut Public Health Research Specialist


Martin is on secondment from NHS Health Scotland for 24 months from March 2010. He is supporting Phase 2 of a research project comparing health outcomes and determinants in West Central Scotland and other, comparable post-industrial regions.

Martin will also be undertaking analysis of longitudinal cohort data as part of the 'Glasgow effect' work programme.

Read all articles by Martin Taulbut

Comments (1)

  • Edward Harkins replied on Mon 03 Oct 2011 at 10:04AM:

    Good and timely stuff here, and it provides a platform for further development and examination of some of the nuancing around the themes.

    The post begins with, “Work is good for your health.” There has been some interesting research and development work that has explored the issue of poor paid and poor quality work actually causing ill-health.

    For example, the authors of the JRF report from last year, ‘The low-pay, no-pay cycle: Understanding recurrent poverty’, noted that;

    “Ill-health sometimes limited research participants' employment”

    and that

    “In addition, the jobs people did were sometimes responsible for their physical or mental ill-health, which then restricted their efforts to work. Unemployment, too, was associated with depression.”

    Martin Taulbut also poses the question as to whether modern Clydesiders would want a return to a situation where, among other things, “women are excluded from the labour market.”

    Women were, of course, not entirely excluded from the labour market; rather they were forced into the lower paid and lessor regarded jobs. An example was in the shipyards where French polishing was considered a soft and ‘dirty’ (or black) trade that, received wisdom had it, women ‘could do’.

    It’s perhaps instructive that in the sectarian-riven shipyards, Roman Catholics were ‘allowed into’ French polishing alongside women. Like women, Roman Catholics were seen by the established dominant interests (in capital and labour) as ‘good enough’ for the dirty or black trades. That, of course, had the effect of reserving the better-paid trades for the dominant non-Catholic labour aristocracy – and of enabling employers to pay absolutely minimal wages to women and Roman Catholics.

    Doubtless the benefited members of labour and capital then would have argued that women and Roman Catholics ‘chose’ to work in the worst trades – just as today some argue that those out of work are somehow there by choice.

    Notwithstanding these caveats, I agree with Martin on the evidence that, on the whole, being in paid work is better than being out of it. A return to full employment would also have the benefits of marginalising the worse employers, and of encouraging moves to mitigate the very worse aspects of ‘poor work’ in a marketplace where labour is more sought after.

Commenting is now closed on this article.