What is this ‘full employment’?

What is ‘full employment’? Does it really mean anything?

Apparently this has never really been quantified because economists who believe in it in the first place vary quite markedly in their definitions – from 0% to think of a number. Well, apart from the obvious fact that some people are unlikely ever to work, it sounds vague to me. Like that other indeterminate phrase: ‘make work pay’, it could mean a lot of things and probably not at all what we might assume or like it to mean.

Like the theory that says the fuller the employment, the higher the inflation which is hinged on the supply-demand theory which hinges on the ‘free’ market which hinges on more and moar and every man for himself. Sadly, the supply-demand paradigm didn’t settle at observation over lengthy periods of time, some interesting charts, useful analysis and sensible application. The musings were deemed so wonderful that whole economic models were created upon which people would henceforth be named consumers and would now be expected to fit their behaviour to the blueprint. It’s like a nature-nurture paradox: people are greedy for more therefore let’s make people needy; create demand so supply can go up; increase supply so the price can come down; decrease the supply so the price can go up…

Governments and ‘capitalists’ lapped this up and decided that this was indeed a most fruitful model and so set themselves about using it to justify, manage and manipulate the economy until people were consuming any old gratuitous crap from a very deep and wide pool of mass exploitation. And, to this day, the faithful and the blind still see this very ridiculous, unsustainable and unethical ideology as the saviour of the problems it helped so much to create. Now, I know I’m no economist – I probably just proved that – but building the entire economic structure on what looks like a massive umbrella Ponzi seems to me to be not only top down capricious artifice but myopic and confused, too. There’s nothing natural or healthy any more (if there ever was) about the cycles in our economic structure. It is macromanaged and micromanaged with pure cynicism.

But I digress… What is ‘full employment’?

Is full employment when everyone, willing and able, has access to a full-time job that is in and of itself a sufficient means by which to live well, keep children, save a bit and contribute taxable revenue? Is this full employment objective possible any more? And, if it is, why would we need a scheme to kick in to guarantee it? The jobs either exist or they don’t. Is full employment actually necessary? Or even desirable? Aren’t there enough of us yet to do three.. ish days each without reducing our living standards? Isn’t that the traditional pitch of those who sell us grand technological dreams of automation? After all, many more people work to live rather than do live to work and working so hard and for so long is only necessary because it costs so much just to maintain the most basic of standards. Where is the guilt-free leisure we were promised?

Is full employment when everyone does whatever cruddy job they are given and/or takes whatever they can get and requires Social Security because it’s still not enough to live a decent life?

Is it everyone being kept busy doing anything, no matter how lousy, futile or (self-) destructive – and without proper financial reward, as a way of keeping certain demographics in line?

Does full employment mean you have to be engaged in an activity which has been officially defined as employment because the prevailing ideology extols it as the only way to prove one’s worth to Society?

Where does full employment place our familial carers? What is being a mother and particularly a lone parent, if it is not a 24/7, on-call occupation? No main political party addresses this – I’m not counting that tax-break for married couples tripe – extending free or at least affordable child care is a lovely idea except that it appears to be being expanded mostly to provide somewhere for adults to store their children while they justify their monetary worth and contribute to making the country look like it has full employment. Why is bringing up children being relegated to a job that other people must be poorly paid to do? Wouldn’t it be cheaper to offer payment to the parent? Isn’t that providing a real choice? Is that too something for nothing for modern politicians, because I’d call it common sense.

Everything is inflated, from the value of assets to the importance of growth. Growth in what? More crap we don’t need, more greed and more poverty. Poverty may be the most sustainable supply-demand commodity since fossil fuels. Oh, and bubbles. We love growing bubbles.

How does this employment-inflation measurement work if the figures available are based on full but underemployment? Everyone working but no one earning enough to buy anything because prices for basic goods are beyond reach? That’s a lot of people depending on a very small tax pot. If full employment has to be achieved through subsidised serfdom then it is surely not an economy but a protection racket?

Is full employment about having any old job or about everyone working because there actually are enough decent jobs? Is it full-time employment or just people looking for work all the time? Is it about finding fulfilling occupations or being fully exploited? Whose world is it that citizens are seen and treated as merely another commodity, subject to the choreography of supply and demand by the powerful and whimsical; to be cynically reduced to an abstract variable on a rickety old framework?

Can we not concentrate on creating a world in which ethical sustainability replaces an economy where a new phone choice every few months, securing an arms contract or finding it cheaper to buy a new t-shirt than wash one is considered successful and progressive? Does an economic recovery really have nothing better to offer? These days we gorge on trifle with our circuses and seem to have quite forgotten the comfort and nutritional value of a good loaf. You can bung nearly anything on top of a wholesome base. I’m sure we would be better off starting our models from ground level. Models which prioritise ethics, sustainability, cohesion and peace of mind. An economy which is a principled means to a commonly beneficial end rather than by selectively dubious means for very exclusive ends. That sort of recovery would feel like progress.

4 thoughts on “What is this ‘full employment’?

  1. Pingback: What is this 'full employment'? | Welfare, Disa...

  2. Full employment is actually about being seen to be worth your corn by your peers. That’s why unemployment benefit or any sort of citizens income idea is doomed from the start.

    Others resent those who are not seen as ‘pulling on the rope’. And that feeling is fundamental to the human animal.

    So you have to operate within that restriction.

    Can work be anything you want? No.

    But it can be anything your wider society accepts is work or work equivalent.

    Thus pensioners get their state pension and everybody pretty much accepts that. Children get schooling and are looked after – everybody pretty much accepts that. The sick and the disabled get their pensions – and that is mostly accepted where it is clear there is a case.

    Beyond that you have to be seen to be contributing if your payment is to be accepted as valid by wider society. What contributing is depends on the maturity of the society you live in. In immature societies, it may be breaking rocks. More mature societies will be closer to the ‘anything you want’ ideal.


  3. As Neil Wilson says full employment ‘can be anything your wider society accepts is work or work equivalent’ but what it is not, is the 5+% built-in unemployment considered by neo-classical economists to be ‘full employment’. The mythology is that any less unemployment will cause inflation (NAIRU). The reality is that 5% unemployment causes enormous misery and a loss of productive work (whatever that might be).


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