Chris Dillow – The labour shortage “problem”

If bosses are “struggling to recruit” it is because too much labour is absorbed in doing things that are the product of capitalist failure.

Chris Dillow is an economics writer at Investors Chronicle. He blogs at Stumbling and Mumbling, and is the author of New Labour and the End of Politics.

Cross-posted from Chris’s website Stumbling and Mumbling


One of the tricks of bourgeois politics is to blame workers for the systemic failures of capitalism. So it is with the claim that there’s a problem with increasing numbers of over-50s being out of the workforce. The Guardian, for example, says:

This is placing strain on the labour market, with many employers struggling to recruit, and is part of the reason for high inflation, the Bank of England has said.

The numbers, however, don’t bear this out. There are now 3.47 million people aged between 50 and 64 who are economically inactive. Whilst this is 250,000 more than at the 2019 low-point, it is less than a year ago and less than the average in the 20 years before 2008.

Which poses the question: if 3.5 million over-50s being economically inactive was not a problem before 2008, why do the Bank of England and government think it is now?

A big reason is that we’ve had 15 years of flatlining productivity. We need to work harder – and have more of us doing so – because we are not working smarter. Lptrend

Had GDP per worker-hour grown at the same rate since 2007 as it did in the preceding 30 years, it would now be 28% higher than it actually is. That means the average worker could be over £150 a week better off, or that all of them could take a day off a week without being worse off than they are now.

As it is, though, we are a poor country. To produce the things we want – that is, to overcome the lack of capacity which the Bank believes to cause inflation – we therefore need more workers simply to make up for our inefficiency.

One reason for this inefficiency is that many people are in the wrong jobs. There are the bullshit jobs described by David Graeber; guard labour such as supervisors, security guards and some middle managers which are needed to overcome the distrust engendered by capitalism and inequality; too many lawyers and accountants because of the complexity of the tax system; too many Border Force or DWP employees because of malevolent policy choices; and a bloated financial sector because of unpriced risk pollution and an false and ideologized perception of the fund management industry.

If bosses are “struggling to recruit” it is because too much labour is absorbed in doing things that are the product of capitalist failure.

But there’s something else. Very few people have the luxury of cushy, enjoyable jobs where their employer will indulge their writing bullshit and harassing co-workers. Instead, many 50-somethings are leaving employment because it is dull or stressful – things which are often the result of rank bad management (and the public sector might be even worse than the private in this regard).
It was Adam Smith who wrote:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment.

Why wouldn’t anybody who can afford to do so want to escape this fate?

This is especially the case because capitalism is the thief of time. As Marx pointed out, we must work longer than we need for our own ends because we must also work for capitalists and the state*. As we get older we appreciate that our time is running out – a point brilliantly made by Martin Hagglund’s This Life – so this surplus labour time becomes more onerous.

My point here is simple. Insofar as government and capital need more people in work, it is only because of the failure of capitalism; the failure to increase productivity recently; the failure to allocate labour efficiently; and the failure to offer satisfying work. The labour problem is therefore in reality a capitalism problem. The system’s lackeys and useful idiots, however, must go to great pains to deny this truth.

* We might add that many of us must also work for landlords, but this will actually keep younger people in work for decades.

Another thing. Some Tory fool says we over-50s can become Deliveroo drivers. Having been knocked off my bike yesterday by somebody who didn’t realize that we drive on the left in this country, I have a lively impression of why people might choose not to do this.

Thanks to many generous donors BRAVE NEW EUROPE  will be able to continue its work for the rest of 2023 in a reduced form. What we need is a long term solution. So please consider making a monthly recurring donation. It need not be a vast amount as it accumulates in the course of the year. To donate please go HERE.

1 Comment

  1. Another important factor is the economic presumption of infinite growth, which means the economic system as a whole gets ever more neurotic about the productivity we “should” have for making the elites’ lives cushy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.