Supporting dynamic economic adjustment

| Publication date: 30 Oct 2019 | Theme: Macroeconomics, Exiting the EU | External Author(s): Martin, J | Journal: National Institute Economic Review Issue 250 | Publisher: Sage Publications, London

Economic policymaking in the UK has historically focussed more on the demand side than on the supply side of the economy. Yet it is on the supply side – the way in which an economy adapts to change while growing productive capacity on a sustainable basis – that medium- to long-term economic performance largely depends. There is an urgent need now to rebalance policy by focussing, in particular, on measures to enhance labour-force productivity, including radically enhanced support for training and skills development. 

This does not involve wholesale structural reform of the economic framework. The UK benefits from having one of the most flexible economies in the OECD, with competitive product markets, relatively low labour costs and historically high employment levels, accompanied by a so-far-successful adoption of an escalating minimum wage. We suggest that in the post-Brexit era politicians would do well to avoid changes in the regulatory regime that would create undue misalignments with EU standards. Nevertheless, the concomitants of the UK’s form of flexibility are a dismal performance on productivity and stagnating living standards. Productivity is now actually falling quarter on quarter ten years after the last economic downturn – a position unprecedented in the past 250 years. This problem must be addressed if the UK is to progress towards fulfilling its economic potential. 

Central to this are both so-called Active Labour Market Policies (ALMPs) to provide people who have become unemployed with new skills that help them remain in the workforce, and investments in effective upskilling of midcareer and older workers. ALMPs can help raise average per capita income over time, yet UK spending on this area is well under half the OECD average and a fraction of the sums spent in the more successful Nordic economies, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Australia. The UK’s many attempts to develop new training and apprenticeship schemes in recent decades have been dogged by poor quality and a lack of support from employers and labour unions. This needs to change: we propose a concerted effort to raise UK spending on ALMPs to the OECD average, especially for 16–24 year-olds. Improving labour-force mobility – for example by radically improving availability of affordable housing – is also critical. Structural reforms of this kind will require sustained political effort and support.