25 JULY 1992, Page 9


James Buchan assesses the consequences of a remarkable fact: 90 per cent of new jobs created since 1970 have been taken by women

AT LLANTRISANT, a place in South Wales where men used to wrest coal from a tight-fisted earth, there is a factory called Race Electronics. I went there one day in March with John Major on a campaign visit so tedious, artificial and futile it seemed an affectation: this was the day when the pho- tographers mutinied in the back of the campaign aircraft, warned John Major they'd all be out of a job if he didn't do something more interesting and the Soapbox took shape and began its Progress into history.

I wasn't thinking about John Major that day. I was staring through a win- dow-pane at 500 young women seated In blue uniforms at a moving assem- bly line. I thought, through this screen of glass and pained gallantry, that I'd understood something: that long after the boys had gone swinging down their valley with their songs and beer and contact sports, their pathos and labour-market rigidity, the girls would still be there, tilling printed circuit boards for Swedish satellite television receivers at £3.90 an hour. I thought: This, as much as John Major, is the future of South Wales and of Britain.

In the last 20 years, the British labour force has grown by 3.2 million People. Of these, 90 per cent were women. What this means is that women took many of the new jobs, and displaced about 1.3 million men from work. In the next ten years, even if the economy doesn't give up the ghost, the labour force will grow very little. Of the few new jobs, the Department of Employment expects eight or more out of ten to go to women.

As for the present, men and women are being swept wholesale out of work, but Women appear to be holding on better. The figures are a little manky, but by putting together the Department of Employment's monthly count of people claiming unem- ployment benefit and its annual Labour Porce Survey, you get the impression that Male unemployment is rising half as fast again as female. This is despite the very severe recession in those service trades retailing, banking etc. — in London and southern England which employ a whole lot of women.

The men of Britain might be forgiven for thinking that the threat to their jobs comes not from Polish miners or Indian steel- makers but from the lovely creature across the hearth-stone, the Englishman's delight and comfort and nemesis.

That is not the overture to a Spectator- like blast at Englishwomen and a demand that they get back home and attend to their slapdash housework, noxious cookery, per- functory love-making and delinquent child- care. There are reactionary passages in this article but this isn't one of them. All things being equal, it is in all our interests that women find jobs in the paid economy: the

ability of the millionth woman is much higher than that of the 12-millionth man; she will create more wealth and make us all better off. (My first job was in Saudi Ara- bia, where women are excluded by custom from almost all paid work and where the sloth, corruptibility and incompetence of my work-mates passed all description.) As for British housework, child-care and sex, these have long been contracted out, at least in the higher social classes.

What interests me is this. Most of the new women's jobs have been part-time. In effect, British women have made a Faustian bargain with British business. To feed their fami- lies or escape the hysterical bore- dom of the British household, many married women or single mothers have offered their ill-paid, part- time and unprotected labour to business people desperate to reduce fixed costs in the face of slumping product markets. These women, who have often had to put children out to the care of strangers, are unwitting agents of the deflationists led by John Major and Norman Lamont who, by sub- ordinating policy to the exchange- rate mechanism of the European Monetary System (but not, alas, to the emollient elements of German labour contract or the European social charter), are trying to bring British wages grinding to a halt.

This chivalrous policy has a little way to go. Money wages were still rising earlier this year — if not at the 10 per cent rate just before Margaret Thatcher was toppled in 1990, then at least at 672 per cent. But there are burning straws in the wind. In my neighbourhood, which is Camden Town in north-west London, the wages for unskilled males have collapsed because the employ- ers of last resort (the local authorities) are either bust or contracting out services to companies that are sifting brutally through an army of long-term unemployed men. In the whole United Kingdom at the end of

April, there were 700,000 men who had not worked for more than a year and, barring a miracle, their number will increase to over a million by next year. Strong men, once the glory of British society, are now its problem, unwanted even as street-sweepers or foot-soldiers. (The Home Office appears to believe that there is no connection between the number of unemployed males and the incidence of theft. The Field Report of 1990, whose argument is very refined, holds that property crime and male unemployment are both symptoms of falling personal consumption.) We are still a long way from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, say, where men have fallen out of the legitimate economy and women struggle to bring up children unaid- ed. But the British labour market is slowly disintegrating and with it the British house- hold.

British men have had it coming. If they had not barricaded themselves into super- annuated manufacturing and production industries, behind outworks of trades unionism, high wages and low productivity, the crash would not have been so drastic; all the free capital would not have migrated into services, and part-time work (in effect, married women) would not have so canni- balised full-time. When I entered this dying world in 1980, returning from Saudi Arabia to join the Financial Times, I was surprised by how little work British men did. There were parts of the building where I'd come on somebody chain-smoking at a typewrit- er, and parts of the day (six to eight in the evening, if I remember) where everybody appeared to be doing something; but most people did nothing, either absolutely or through typing up news budgets, bothering foreign correspondents, holding chapel meetings, discussing strategy at department lunches etc. Understandably, some people found it more interesting to be drunk for at least some of the day. I myself did nothing for 11 months, and in the 12th wrote a detailed survey of the Fijian sugar industry (now, unfortunately, somewhat super- seded). Even as hoarded labour, I feel priv- ileged to have seen this old masculine economy as the shades of twilight were falling.

For this was also a period of the most profound change in the nature of unpaid female labour. Housework is a valuable economic activity which, if it were fully commercialised, would add between a fifth and two-thirds again to GDP, depending on how you measure it*: certainly it's a business worth Lord Sainsbury breaking the Sunday trading laws to capture. By the early 1980s, housework and cookery had become mechanised to the point where even women with children could go out and take part-time jobs without leaving utter chaos behind them. Since 1971, the number of women employed part-time in

*OECD Economic Studies, No.181Spring 1992 goes into this.

the paid economy has gone up from 2.8 million to 4.6 million.

The result was that when the manufac- turing and mining industries collapsed in the early 1980s and male employment fell by up to 25 per cent in South Wales, round Birmingham, on Merseyside and the Tyne and Tees, except in the most traumatised districts women could come to the rescue of their men. Later in the 1980s, the econo- my boomed briefly, and many of the men were taken back in much less secure jobs and having spent their savings; even the long-term unemployed, the men most short of skills, luck and good health, found in 1988 and 1989 that they could get jobs; and the older men simply quit. (My grandfather was still taking the train to an office in London at the age of 70. No old man does that now.) This picture is reflected all over western Europe, but smaller, as in a series of reced- ing mirrors. Some tables that the OECD will publish later this month show that the rates of participation in the paid economy for women between the ages of 25 and 34 rose by 23 percentage points in the United Kingdom, 15 in western Germany, 20 in France etc. between 1972 and last year. Everywhere male employment crumbled at the edges: my subjective impression that no Frenchman lifts a finger after 55 has con- siderable empirical support. What is odd about Britain is that so many women already have jobs and that they've held on to them as the latest wave of recession has crashed through the labour market.

I have lots of theories. First, the heavy or heavyish industries employing men (such as defence or construction) are still being hit harder than those employing women: things will even up when, for example, the clearing banks peer at their gaping balance sheets, panic and lay off staff. Second, women are more docile as well as cheaper. Third, men are too inflexible about the kind of jobs they take. (This may be true, but in conversations at my local Job Club, in Georgiana Street, Camden Town, I got the opposite impression: a 58-year-old ex- shipbuilder unemployed for ten years will always find it hard to compete as a part- time juggler/dancer at £110 a week.) Fourth, because unemployment benefit is paid to heads of households men cannot afford to take the part-time jobs that their wives or other men's wives can. In other words, a welfare system designed to but- tress the Beveridgean family — male breadwinner, little wife, couple of children — is actually demolishing it.

The risk is that British men will riot, as they did when they were thrown out of work or couldn't get work in the early 1980s. But — notwithstanding the recent unrest in Bristol and Burnley — Britain has changed since then. Riots are done by young men. In the early 1980s, a rising pop- ulation of young men smashed into a falling number of jobs. This time, the weak birth-rates of 1973-79 mean that relatively few young men will be reaching working age over the next few years: 25 per cent fewer in 1994 than in 1983. It will be a tame as well as flexible workforce.

Theoretically, if the labour market works properly, male wages will fall and ex-dust- men will be taken on as trainee beauticians at £60 a week. The labour market will have achieved flexibility. It will be a market dominated by short-term, unprotected, un- unionised, insecure, low-paid and unmoti- vated labour without employment rights where, as Winston Churchill once said, `the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer by the worst,' and chil- dren will see little of their mothers. Wages and prices will, presumably, be in free fall. Devaluation, except of an entire society, will have been avoided.