The Problem with Pandemic Post-Brexit Work Ethic

Published: Oct 1, 2022  |  

Editor of the Jewish Chronicle

Imagine a caste-based society in which the home-born population does not have to work for a living, as it is propped up by the labours of immigrants via a bloated welfare state.

If that sounds dystopian, that’s because it is. And worryingly, the UK is heading in that direction.

In spite of Brexit, 19 percent of British workforce is now foreign-born (even in the United States, that figure stands at only 17 percent). Since the country voted to leave the EU, numbers of Europeans have fallen slightly; but this has been more than compensated by the rise in citizens from the rest of the world, including countries such as Nigeria and India. The number of immigrant workers in Britain now stands at 6.3 million, a record high. The notion that Brexit Britain would be unwelcoming to foreigners does not appear to be supported by the data.

Yet even this new influx of willing potential employees is insufficient to fill the vacuum left by British-born workers withdrawing from the workforce since the pandemic. The Government’s generous furlough scheme allowed millions to become habituated to a work-free life, and coaxing them back to work has proven difficult; studies have shown that the longer people spend outside employment, the harder it is for them to return. 

A million-and-a-half Britons are now unemployed, and—according to the Spectator’s data hub—a further 5.3 million receive out-of-work benefits such as sick or disability payments, totalling 13 percent of the working-age population

Staggeringly, a third of all British households now receive means-tested benefits. So severe have the effects of Britain’s shrinking workforce become that the Financial Times labelled it “the most urgent problem facing the UK economy.”

It is a problem affecting the quality of life of millions. In the hospitality industry, the difficulty is acute. Pubs, restaurants and cafes are struggling, with many having to reduce their opening hours due to labour shortages. Customers are increasingly being forced to book ahead.

The airline industry has been heavily affected too. Aviation lost 2.3 million jobs globally during the pandemic, with ground-handling and security hardest hit, and many workers have been slow to return, either opting for the “gig economy” or slipping off the radar altogether. Over the summer, British travellers endured monstrous delays and chaotic scenes at airports, as there has simply not been enough staff to keep flights running on time.

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), more than half of businesses who reported a worker shortage last year stated that they were unable to meet demands. Employment fell by a further 1.4 percent in the year ending September 2021, with a marked drop in unskilled labourers and the young. Numbers of workers aged between 16 and 24 fell by 201,000. 

There was a sharp decline at the other end of the age spectrum, too; inactivity for those aged 55 and over soared over the pandemic period. The movement of workers into redundancy—including voluntary redundancy—in the second quarter of 2021 nearly doubled for that age group, accompanied by an increase in early retirement. 

Remuneration is part of the picture, but this is not about the minimum wage. As in the United States, for many years, native-born Britons have been reluctant to take so-called “elementary jobs,” poorly-paid positions such as cleaning, farmhand work, and labouring; these vacancies have been filled by immigrants, many from Eastern Europe. 

Last year, amid temporary shortages of migrant workers, desperate farmers were forced to offer wages of up to £30-an-hour to attract an army of British fruit-pickers before their produce spoiled

This dynamic is in evidence now as much as ever. But the additional problem is that people from both ends of the age spectrum are withdrawing their labour after the pandemic to become economically inactive (neither in work nor seeking work). Some older people may rely on passive income, such as rental payments from rented property. But many who became habituated to life on furlough have apparently grown content to live on benefits. 

Previous governments strove to create a welfare system that encouraged people back to work. But since the pandemic, this has collapsed in favour of old-fashioned handouts, blunting the incentive to re-enter the labour market. Job-coaching and other support for finding employment has been allowed to fade into the background as the pandemic-era furlough system informs a different working culture.

To make matters worse, a trend of “quiet quitting” has been spreading in the post-pandemic era. Research found that just nine percent of British employees are “engaged” with their jobs, ranking the country a shocking 33rd out of 38 nations. A total of 41 percent of Britons experience job-related stress every day, with 15 percent suffering from anger at work and 20 percent feeling sad regularly, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace report. This has led to “quiet quitting”—the practice of withdrawing all effort and getting by on the absolute minimum. Not great for the economy or the country.

For a long time, politicians on the right have lamented the supposed laziness of the British worker. Earlier this month, a leaked recording revealed the frontrunner to be next Prime Minister, Liz Truss, railing against the work ethic of Britons. They needed “more graft”, she insisted, and lacked the “skill and application” of foreigners, adding that it was “partly a mindset or attitude thing.” She was echoing the sentiments she expressed in a 2012 book, Britannia Unchained, along with four colleagues. “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world,” they wrote. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.

This is far from the whole story. England’s South has greater productivity rates than the North; are we supposed to assume that London city workers “graft” harder than workers in Manchester? And the Chinese—whose work ethic receives praise from Ms. Truss—are actually two-thirds less productive than Britons.

In truth, policymakers have been grappling with the puzzle of Britain’s low productivity problem for many years. According to the most recent figures, from 2019, output-per-worker was 13 percent lower in Britain than the rest of the G7, acting as a dampener on prosperity. Research published by the London School of Economics and the Resolution Foundation last year showed that the main case of this has been low business investment—it stood at 10 percent of GDP in 2019, compared with about 13 percent in the US, Germany, and France—as well as weak management and too few commercial patents. At the moment, all of these problems are combining to tip Britain—which may already be in recession—into a serious workforce crisis. In crude terms, more people need to be doing jobs. 

Fixing this structurally will require concerted political will to reform the benefits system, as well as working to shore up the economic causes of poor productivity. To fix it more quickly, however, politicians may be tempted to open the gates to higher levels of immigration, as was the case in the Blair years. The latter is much easier.

Which is where Britain’s dystopian future comes in. Correctly-calibrated immigration is a social and moral good. But if industrious foreign workers are increasingly drafted in to dominate our workforce, while British-born people continue to withdraw from employment, the country will be transformed into a caste-based society of industry on the one hand and indolence on the other, with the redistribution of wealth taking place by a vast state bureaucracy (taxes are already at their highest level since the 1950s, as Britain embraces a big-government model.) 

This will be bad for social cohesion and risks further unhealthy social malaise. It will also seriously hamper growth. Thus, it is vital that a pathway into work is immediately created in the benefits system so that the burden is shouldered by everybody, wherever they were born.

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