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RSA issues stark warning that economic insecurity is more widespread than thought. A new focus on 'economic security' is necessary to restore optimism and meet the opportunities and challenges of automation, an ageing population and Brexit.

The link between employment and economic security has fundamentally broken since the 2008 financial crash, a new report by think-tank the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and Nottingham Civic Exchange warns.

The study follows RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor’s Employment Review for the Prime Minister and argues a new focus on 'economic security' is needed to meet working Britain's challenges in the 2020s, as automation leaps forward. It urges a Universal Basic Income to complement paid work.

Addressing Economic Insecurity notes more than 7 million people in working households live in poverty, wage growth was lower than inflation for most of the last decade and close to 8 million people in the UK live with problem debt.

A Populus survey commissioned as part of the analysis uncovers economic worries across four self-defined income groups (those not managing to get by; those just managing to get by; those just managing to save; and those comfortably saving). It finds:

  • Four in five Brits in-work worry inflation will outstrip their pay, including those not managing (82%), just about managing (85%), just saving (79%) and comfortably saving (76%), showing subjective fears about shrinking real-terms pay affect all groups and not just those on low incomes.
  • A third of the ‘just about managing’ —  the term popularised by the Prime Minister — have a household income of more than the national average (£34,000).
  • Likewise, those ‘just about managing’ worry more about pay, progression and poverty in-work than any other group, and even more than the poorest. For instance, 45% of the ‘not managing’ feel they have progressed but only 37% of the just about managing. This shows a job is not the only solution to economic security.
  • High housing costs are the biggest concern for those not managing (87%) and for JAMs (85%) and this is a clear issue too for those just managing to save (81%) and those comfortably managing to save (71%).
  • Relocation fears concern 47% of JAMs and 55% of those not managing, but this worry also hangs over a third of those just saving (33%), and a fifth (20%) of those comfortably saving. This suggests insecurity is now widespread in the housing market and not just confined to the young, the poor or first-time buyers.
  • Personal debt worries two-thirds (67%) of those not managing to get by and half (50%) of ‘just about managing’.

Automation, an ageing population and climate change, alongside Brexit uncertainty, could make this situation worse, researchers caution, while the traditional policy focuses on employment, inequality and poverty even today fail to halt the rising economic anxieties of those in-work.

Britain in the 2020s would be better served from a focus on "economic security" — defined as “the degree of confidence that a person can have in maintaining a decent quality of life, now and in the future, given their economic and financial circumstances" — the study concludes:  

  • Unlike poverty or even inequality, the idea of economic security and insecurity is one to which most people – including many families and households with above average incomes – relate.
  • Economic security combines objective factors and subjective experience and expectations. Two people with the same jobs and the same income can both have, and feel they have, very different prospects.
  • The economic consequences of economic insecurity result in a vicious circle. People experiencing low economic security find it harder to find productive uses for their skills. This slows progression in work and in turn further slows economic growth and productivity – making economic insecurity worse.  

It also recommends how government could overhaul health, housing and welfare to fuse economic policy and public services together around economic security, arguing that the state must be both more strategic in when it intervenes, while helping a broader cross-section of society:

  • A Universal Basic Income alongside intensive jobs support: A Universal Basic Income at a national scale or the combination of alternative and localised welfare provision, to provide all with basic income predictability and a means to save, alongside more intensive support for citizens in navigating the contemporary labour market, as the RSA is currently exploring alongside Rochdale Boroughwide Housing and Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
  • Wider housing support, with targeted support at key crunch points, such as births: The expansion and improvement of independent housing advice for those unlikely to be allocated social housing, with proactive and targeted support at the point of life course changes such as the birth of a new child or family breakup.
  • Putting prevention at the heart of healthcare for all: shifting the profile of public spending on health to preventative services – which help people avoid ill-health and stay in-work.

The report will be launched in Nottingham on Friday. The city acts as a case study for the report, with speakers including Matthew Taylor, RSA chief executive and author of the Taylor Review into Modern Employment for the Prime Minister.

Report author Atif Shafique, senior researcher at the RSA, said:

“Having a job is no longer a guarantor of economic security: more than 7 million people in working households live in poverty, wage growth lagged behind inflation for most of the last decade, and close to 8 million people in the UK live with problem debt.

“Ten years after the crash, and we need a step-change. Community, place, identity and personal responsibility all have an important role to play.

"But to help ordinary working families take ownership of their lives, local and national policy-makers must reshape policy around economic security too: becoming more strategic in when services intervene, preventing problems before they happen, and more expansive in who they help, as automation and other challenges affect people across the income spectrum."

 

Dr Paula Black, director of Nottingham Civic Exchange at Nottingham Trent University, said:

“We noticed through our work looking at how ordinary working families felt about their financial situation as well as the economic reality, that economic insecurity was a common theme and warranted further exploration.

“As policymakers increasingly discuss ordinary working families it is important they understand the way that economic insecurity impacts their lives and that the subjective element of how people feel is important in this.

"We are delighted to be working with the RSA on this programme of work and to be feeding the experiences of Nottinghamshire people and the profile of the area into such influential work.”

ends

Contact:

Ash Singleton, ash.singleton@rsa.org.uk, 07799 737 970.

Notes:

The RSA [the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce] is an independent charity dedicated to solving today's big issues through social action and research.

For a copy of the report and/or survey data, please email ash.singleton@rsa.org.uk.  

Survey methodology:

Populus interviewed 2,083 adults online. Populus’ online omnibus speaks with a nationally representative sample of adults 18+, with quotas set on age, gender and region and the data weighted to the known profile of Great Britain using age, gender, government office region, social grade, taken a foreign holiday in the last 3 years, tenure, number of cars in the household and working status.

21st century economic insecurity:

Eighteen years into the 21st Century, economic insecurity has become one of its defining challenges. A job is no longer a guarantor of economic security: more than 7 million people in working households live in poverty, wage growth lagged behind inflation for most of the last decade, and close to 8 million people in the UK live with problem debt. The rise of the gig economy and automation offers potential benefits, but too often these are on the side of the employer rather than the employee.

The power to create a better economy is in our hands. To counter economic insecurity, local and national policymakers must focus on:

  • economic insecurity at work: tackling the challenges of automation through enhanced workers’ rights and responsibilities, lifelong learning and a focus on good work.
  • economic insecurity outside work: reforming national systems of welfare, pensions and housing designed around 21st century employment, spreading asset ownership and wealth more widely, refocusing public services at a local scale to protect citizens from the harm of acute economic insecurity, and combating the potentially devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.

 

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