Challenging official statistics on work

How much do official statistics reflect the way we work today?

Cut out wooden people in a rowd, one is blue


The way the monthly ONS figures are compiled has always intrigued me. As someone with a ‘portfolio’ career, I always wonder what category I fall into, whether I am counted multiple times, etc. I have two part-time jobs, which together make up at least a full-time job. One of those jobs was freelance up until recently. Am I self employed, employed, part time or full time? According to the ONS, I am a part timer because their figures are based on a person’s ‘main’ job. How a person defines main is up to them. It could be based on hours or earnings or passion, for instance.   Although officially I am a part timer, I have never worked harder in my life than since I took up a portfolio career in order to get greater ‘flexibility’. I virtually have no spare time.

The ONS also does surveys on total hours worked and on second jobs, including more than one other job, but the main statistics are based on people’s main job rather than total hours worked. In any event, some people who have one part-time job can end up working virtually full time so it’s really about the number of hours for which you are paid.

The ONS told me that the number of hours self employed people work has dropped in the last decades. They admit that this is due to the changing nature of those who are self employed [for instance, the fact that more women are doing it], but surely it is also in part due to the fact that many people are doing self employment on the side of other jobs.

Work has changed dramatically in the last years, particularly with the advent of the gig economy. There has always been casual work, but gig platforms are spreading across industries and borders now.

How can the data capture sufficiently what is happening? According to Ron McGowan, author of How to Find WORK in the Gig Economy: A Roadmap for Graduates and Precarious Workers, unemployment figures in Western countries are “a sham” which don’t come close to measuring the true state of unemployment, particularly the rate of underemployment. Yet these figures are used for many purposes, including for calculating benefits and the like. His book aims to help prepare people for the gig economy. Much more support is needed for gig workers and the so-called slashie  [portfolio] generation of people who do multiple jobs, but if the statistics don’t adequately measure changes in the way we work how can governments keep up?

Take maternity pay. Advice for those with more than one job has been inconsistent. gets numerous emails asking whether a person who does two part-time jobs or one part-time job and a self employed job can get two lots of SMP or Maternity Allowance. The good news is that, if they do two part-time jobs and qualify for SMP in both, they get two lots of pay. However, if they only qualify in one job and in the other qualify for MA, they can only get one lot of SMP or MA. That seems wrong.

Similarly, if you get SMP you can do self employed work during maternity leave without losing maternity pay. However, the same does not apply for people who are running their own businesses and get MA, meaning they face worries about having to close down their business if they take any time off.

Policy just doesn’t seem to have caught up with the reality of people’s lives these days. There is a lot of work going on around ‘Good Work’ which relates, in part, to the gig economy and to campaigns for greater rights and benefits for gig workers. It needs to feed into every aspect of advice and support offered to workers.

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