More women

Out and about in Belsize Park this week, Iain Duncan Smith had a bit of a set-to with local Camden councillor Jonny Bucknell who took him to task about benefit sanctions. Iain Duncan Smith is reported as having said in response that sanctions are the reason for the UK’s record levels of employment and more women in work.

The changing levels of people in employment are something I’m interested in, together with what’s driving them and what’s behind the headlines. It’s true that there are more women in work than ever before, nearly a million more at the end of 2015 than when Iain Duncan Smith took charge at the Department of Work and Pensions in 2010. For starters though, there are more women than ever before as the population has grown - pictured here here by age-band.

There’s a drop in 35–49 year olds as the last of the baby-boomers have been hitting fifty, but the overall increase is clear. There could just be more women in work because there are more women to work, but employment rates do show that a higher proportion of women in every age-band in work compared with 2010. So there’s no doubt that on any definition there are more women in work.

The question though is whether benefit sanctions are the reason for this increasing employment. The Office for National Statistics puts people into three groups: Employed, Unemployed and Inactive. Unemployed people are those who are available for work and looking for work, whether they are claiming out-of-work benefits or not, and in fact only about half of these people counted as Unemployed are claiming unemployment benefits. The changing numbers in each group show that for 18–24 year olds there are fewer unemployed and fewer inactive women, for 35–49 year olds there are fewer of each employment status (as the population of this group has shrunk) and that there was barely any change in the number of unemployed who are 50 or over.

Putting the two together shows the extent to which the increasing employment rates at all age bands has resulted from changes in unemployment and inactivity. Most of the increase in employment rate has come from less inactivity, not from less unemployment.

So most of the total increase in the numbers of women in work comes from a larger population with a diminishing proportion of inactive people - particularly at older ages as people work longer.

There has been a decrease in the rate of unemployment, but sanctions will not have been a factor for those unemployed who weren’t claiming unemployment benefits. More significantly, our starting point of 2010 is nearing the nadir of employment rates following job losses in the recession. Obviously, most people who suffered such involuntary unemployment will have been trying to get a job again as soon as possible, and as growth returned will have got a new job because that’s what they will have wanted to do, not because of the prospect of benefit sanctions even if they were in the subset of unemployed people who will have been claiming unemployment benefits.

So the answer to the question of whether benefit sanctions are the reason why more women are in work is at best … not really.

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