Economic inequality and growth in the United Kingdom: Insights for the United States

After an extraordinarily long and deep economic downturn, the United Kingdom is finally enjoying belated but comparatively strong growth. The current recovery is jobs-rich, with employment growth massively outperforming expectations relative to gross domestic product. That’s the good news. In stark contrast, however, pay growth remains unprecedentedly weak and productivity has plummeted. Real (inflation-adjusted) wages have fallen for six years straight, with even nominal wages growing at less than 1 percent in recent months—the lowest increase ever recorded.

This apparent collapse in the link between economic growth and real wage gains is more extreme than anything we have seen before. But the trend has not emerged completely out of the blue. Even as the U.K. economy continued to grow steadily prior to the financial crisis and global recession in 2007-2009, workers across the earnings distribution experienced a major slow-down in wage growth.

This unhappy story about the weakening relationship between wages and growth is all too familiar in the United States. But the U.K. experience is different in important respects—and potentially offers some relevant insights for U.S. policymakers to ponder.

First, let’s look at what happened. The simple ratio of GDP growth to growth in median wages in the United Kingdom weakened markedly in the period from 2003-2008 compared to the 1990s and 1980s. In those earlier decades, wage inequality grew sharply—those at the top pulled away from the middle, and the middle pulled away from the bottom—but pay was rising across the board. In contrast, a big deceleration in the growth rate of earnings characterized the early 2000s. For the first time, median pay trailed way behind growth in real GDP per capita.

Between 1977 and 2002, average annual real wage growth for workers at the median was around 2 percent, but from 2003 to 2008 it fell to around 0 percent to 1 percent (depending on the measure of inflation used). This stagnation happened even while real GDP per capita had an average annual growth rate of 1.4 percent. The squeeze was broadly felt: the only earners on the income ladder who experienced stronger growth were those near the bottom rungs (buoyed by increases in the minimum wage) and those at the very top (especially due to bonus payments in finance).

In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and amid the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the fall in real wages (around 8 percent) has also been relatively evenly spread across the earnings spectrum, though it is far bigger if we include the self-employed (who are excluded from official data). Younger workers have suffered the most, while older workers have been the least affected.

Wages, however, don’t give the full-picture when it comes to living standards. If we look at household income growth, from 1994-95 to 2011-12, the bottom half of households took just 16 percent of pre-tax growth. Upper-middle households
(those in the 50th to 90th percentiles) took 45 percent of household income pre-tax growth (44 percent post-tax), proportionate to their population share. The richest 10 percent of households took 38 percent of pre-tax growth (29 percent post-tax) while the richest 1 percent took 14 percent pre-tax (9 percent post-tax).

In short, redistribution boosted the bottom half ’s share of income growth from 16 to 26 percent.

Why has the link between economic growth and wages weakened? The share of GDP flowing to the wages of those on the low and middle part of the income spectrum has fallen markedly since the mid-1970s, from 16 percent to just 12 percent—a decline of 25 percent.1 In simple accounting terms, this relationship depends on three factors:

  • How much of GDP growth goes to profit rather than labor?
  • How much of that share of economic growth goes to labor in the form of non-wage benefits and how much actually gets paid out to workers in wages?
  • Of this wage share, how much reaches low- and middle-income earners?

It is often assumed that the United Kingdom and the United States alike face a long-term decline in the labor share of GDP as more of our national incomes are sucked up into corporate profits due to a mix of changing globalisation, technology, increased financialisation and, relatedly, deregulation spurred by the impact of big money on democratic politics.
From the U.K. perspective, there has been a slight shift in this direction over time, though it is an issue that is often overstated. Changes in the U.K.’s labor share of national income accounted for only a fifth of the cleavage that had opened up between pay and productivity since the early 1970s. The decline in the labor share of income has been less marked than in the United States.2

Another U.K. perspective is that workers’ wages have primarily been under pressure because of the rising burdens on employers to provide more non-wage compensation such as higher national insurance and pension contributions. These employment costs have certainly risen, but again they can be overstated, with such increases accounting for a bit over a quarter of the gap between productivity and pay. That said, it is true that the rising cost of non-wage compensation appears to have played a more important role in the period of wage stagnation from 2003 in the United Kingdom.

But by far the most important factor explaining the declining share of the cake going to the bottom half of U.K. workers since the 1970s has been rising wage inequality, although this played a smaller role in the immediate pre-crisis period of 2003 to 2008.

How these three trends are likely to evolve over the next decade and beyond is far from clear. The intellectual zeitgeist expects there to be a redistribution of income over time from labor toward capital due to the “rise of the robot” (technology replac-ing workers) and French economist Thomas Piketty’s now famous observation that “r >g” (returns on capital are greater than the returns on economic growth).

Equally troubling is the outlook for non-wage costs. The tricky balancing act over the past decade of securing adequate pensions savings for an aging society and pro-tecting the wages of today’s workers in the United Kingdom is unlikely to go away. Similarly, most projections anticipate that, following the recent downturn period where wage inequality remained fairly level, it is now likely to increase again as the highest earners pull away from the rest.

Yet the idea that resumed growth is pre-destined to mean ever higher inequality is bogus. It was not long ago, after all, that the United Kingdom experienced broadly shared eco-nomic growth. So what observations can we make based on the U.K.’s experience?

First, standing still takes a lot of effort when the ground is shifting. A rising minimum wage and aggressive use of tax-credits made a significant and positive difference in the United Kingdom, but policymakers were pushing against the grain and didn’t do enough to confront the structural economic challenges such as inadequate business investment, lack of employee bargaining power, and weak demand for skilled labor.

Second, successive waves of “welfare reform,” together with the long-term decline in labor union collective bargaining, appears to have shifted the wage-unemployment relationship since the early 2000s. Wages have become significantly less responsive to falling unemployment than was the case in the 1980s and 1990s.3 At the same time, and despite the gains from the minimum wage, working poverty has become far more pervasive. Arguably, these shifts put even more onus on aggressive monetary and fiscal policy to help generate a tight labour market and wage growth.

Third, the U.K.’s policy on the minimum wage was a success but we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. The Low Pay Commission, the body that oversees the minimum wage, is widely judged to have been highly effective if perhaps too cautious. The wage gap between the bottom and middle of the distribution has fallen (slightly) since its introduction. Fifteen years ago the whole notion of the minimum wage was highly partisan. Now each of the political parties jockey for position on this issue.

The Low Pay Commission’s blend of operational independence, technical expertise, and social partnership (employer and union representation) has worked well. And this flexibility has been an advantage; in the UK context, linking the national mini-mum wage to inflation would be a mistake. But there is now a sense that we need to revise our minimum wage framework to reflect learning over 15 years and to inject more ambition into the process.4

Finally, policy wonks need to think hard about the political economy of tax credits. Most experts think tax credits increased the incentive to work (boosting single-parent employment rates in particular), helped bring about a major fall in child poverty, and shored up the post-tax transfer share of income going to the bottom 50 percent of society. Yet the rapid expansion of the policy (around 8 in 10 families with kids were eligible in 2010) raced ahead of popular support, making it surprisingly easy for the current governing coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to cut them. Tax credits have been characterised as “welfare” for the work-shy, whereas “tax-relief ” is generally perceived more positively.
So what is the outlook for wage inequality in the United Kingdom? Broad-based economic growth is very unlikely to return by chance. Securing such an outcome will require a number of elements, including:

  • A more aggressive strategy for raising the wage floor during the current period of economic recovery, drawing confidence from growing research about the capacity of buoyant labour markets to absorb steady minimum wage rises
  • Tackling the extraordinary rents that have accrued to small numbers in the finance sec-tor over the past decade as the link between run-away rewards, financial instability, and fiscal retrenchment is all too clear (and is toxic for those on low and modest incomes)
  • Ditching the notion that increasing payroll taxes (on employees and employ-ers) are a politically cute way of raising extra revenue (not least when large and regressive tax-reliefs remain untouched)
  • Boosting the woefully inadequate business and public investment as there is no other path to higher labor productivity
  • Remedying perennial weaknesses in U.K. education policy, especially the awful wage and productivity returns to many low and intermediate level vocational qualifications (respectively, the qualification level that a 16 or 19 year old is expected to attain)

This last point is key. Education may not be the panacea that political leaders claim it to be, but the wage-penalty arising from poor quality sub-degree level vocational qualifications in the United Kingdom is particularly punitive.

More speculatively, there is a desperate need for experimentation with new labor mar-ket institutions that could offer employees some greater form of bargaining power, but in a manner that is compatible with the realities of a relatively flexible, heavily service-dominated economy. This is pretty much a policy void in the United Kingdom today.

Recreating more equitable, broad-based economic growth requires as prerequisites a tighter jobs market together with a higher wage floor. But to restore the link between economic growth and wage growth also will involve bold policy experimentation in pursuit of higher wages for those on the low- and middle-income rungs on the economy in the United Kingdom.

September 1, 2014


Gavin Kelly


Economic Inequality

End Notes

1 Matthew Whittaker and Lee Savage, “Missing out: why ordinary workers are experiencing growth without gain,” Resolution Foundation, 2011.

2 Joao Paulo Pessoa and John van Reenen, “Decoupling of Wage Growth and Productivity Growth? Myth and Reality,” Resolution Foundation, 2012.

3 Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin, “What a drag: the chilling impact of unemployment on real wages,” Resolution Foundation, 2012.

4 James Plunkett, Conor D’Arcy and Alex Hurrell, “More than a minimum: the Resolution Foundation review of the future of the National Minimum Wage,” Resolution Foundation, 2013.

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