Female unemployment has fallen below 4 per cent for the first time on record as the rising pension age for women and a thriving jobs market draw more women into the workforce.
Women accounted for the bulk of the fall in unemployment over the past year, the Office for National Statistics revealed as its latest figures again painted a picture of a robust labour market in defiance of Brexit concerns and slowing GDP growth.
Total employment for the three months to December climbed 167,000 from the previous quarter to 32.6 million, the highest since records began in 1971. The employment rate, at 75.8 per cent, was the equal highest recorded.
Unemployment dropped 14,000 to 1.36 million and at 4 per cent was at levels last seen 44 years ago. Inactivity, a measure of those who cannot or do not want to work, including students and the long-term sick, declined to a record low of 20.9 per cent.
The vacancy rate suggested that there would be no let-up to Britain’s jobs boom, which has pushed unemployment below the pre-crisis average of 5.1 per cent for three years.
In the three months to January, unfilled vacancies increased by 16,000 to 870,000, another historic high. Most of the unfilled posts were in service industries such as wholesalers, retailers and car repair shops.
Elizabeth Martins, an economist at HSBC, said: “The pace of job creation and pick-up in wage growth are reasons to remain relatively cheerful, despite some negative headlines about jobs in the auto industry.”
Pay also continued to recover. Regular wages rose by 3.4 per cent compared with the same period in 2017, the fastest pace in a decade. After adjusting for inflation, real-terms regular pay growth of 1.2 per cent was the highest in two years, ensuring that household living standards improved for an 11th month running.
The Resolution Foundation, a think tank that focuses on ways to improve the living standards of people on low incomes, said that the “encouraging news on pay came alongside good news on both job quantity . . . and job quality, as the share of workers on zero-hours contracts at the end of 2018 was down 57,000 on the previous year”.
It added, however, that real average pay was £10 a week lower than a decade ago, a legacy of three periods when real wages shrank after the financial crisis.
To guarantee that living standards will continue to rise, analysts believe that Britain’s woeful productivity record must improve. There was little evidence that it has done, however. Output per hour contracted by 0.2 per cent in the final quarter of 2018 compared with the same period a year before.
Alok Sharma, the employment minister, hailed the statistics as the result of the government’s “pro-business policies . . . These figures show the underlying resilience of our jobs market, once again delivering record employment levels.”
Britain’s employment success over the past year can be explained by a large increase in the female workforce. Of the 100,000 decline in unemployment in the year to December, 68,000 were women. The female employment rate reached 71.4 per cent, the highest on record.