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Black and youth unemployment in UK higher than US

13 Apr 2012

Britain has significantly higher unemployment among black people and the young than America because deindustrialisation and a flexible labour market has created a more unequal society, research from The University of Manchester says.

The British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Leeds hears today [Friday 13 April] that during the last three recessions unemployment among black British men was up to 19 percentage points higher than among those in America.
Professor Yaojun Li, of The University of Manchester, will tell the conference that in Britain it reached 29% in the recession in the early 1980s, 36% in the recession in the early 1990s, and stood at 22% in 2011. By contrast the unemployment figures for black men in the US were 22%, 17% and 22%.
The highest unemployment figures for black women in Britain in the three recessions were 25%, 26% and 17%, compared with 20%, 12% and 13% for those in the US.
Between recessions the figures for UK unemployment among black people were higher than in the US, although the gap had narrowed over the past few years, he said.
Professor Li, who analysed responses from 4.7 million people to the most authoritative social surveys in the two countries, said: “Overall, there is greater ethnic inequality in Britain than in the USA for both sexes.
“This gives a fairly strong indication that the flexible labour market policies adopted in Britain in the last few decades did not protect the minority ethnic groups against the repercussions of recessions.”
He believed that it was America’s affirmative action programme and federal procurement policy, requiring public institutions to have staff compositions representative of the population, that had helped reduce the unemployment rate among black people there.
Britain’s unemployment was also higher among the young, he said. The highest figures for unemployment among 16-24 year old men in Britain were 27% in the 1980s recession, 27% in the 1990s and 23% in 2011. By contrast the figures were 21%, 17% and 22% in the US.
The highest figures for unemployment among 16-24 year old women in Britain were 25% in the 1980s, 19% in the 1990s and 18% in 2011. By contrast they were 16%, 12% and 15% in the US.
For black men aged 16-24, the unemployment figures reached 47%, 62% and 39% in the three recessions in Britain, compared with 38%, 35% and 37% in the US. And the figures were 45%, 51% and 44% for young black women in Britain as against 35%, 25% and 24% in the US.
Professor Li also found that Great Britain was a more unequal society than the US. Unemployment rates in 2011 varied from 6% among men aged over 50 to 21% among 16 to 24-year-old men, a gap of 15 percentage points. In the US they varied from 8% to 20%, a 12 percentage point gap. Among women the gap was 14% for Britain and 8% for the US.
“This may be due to the fact that in Britain the mid 1980s and the early 1990s recessions were accompanied and exacerbated by a process of deindustrialization and restructuring of the economy, and by the retrenchment of the state, which happened much more abruptly in Britain than in the USA,” he said.
“The much-vaunted flexible labour market as espoused by the then Conservative government in Britain from 1979 to 1997 does not seem to have solved the problem of stimulating economic activity and unleashing human creativity. As amply shown in the analysis, the so-called flexible labour market in Britain was not actually all that good at evening out the peaks and troughs, let alone in protecting the most vulnerable social groups.
“The overall smaller social inequalities in the USA, with particular regard to gender and ethnicity, suggest that the affirmative action programme in the USA did play a positive role in protecting the vulnerable groups, in comparison with the British data.”
Professor Li spoke about his fears for the future. “The current recession has already taken its toll with nearly three million being unemployed and a similar number being inactive. Yet, worse is still to come. As a large proportion of the disadvantaged group, particularly black people, tend to find employment in the public sector, if they can find a job at all, the current Coalition Government’s stringency plan to cut public sector employment is most likely to hit the most vulnerable groups even harder.
“Economic cycles are largely beyond the control of individuals, families and even national governments. The three recessions in the last 40 years in the two archetypical liberal economies have all claimed victims by penalising the most vulnerable groups, in both countries and those just entering the labour market.
“The overall disadvantages were more salient in Britain than in the USA, suggesting that the flexible labour market policies adopted by the British government failed to protect the most vulnerable groups and that the affirmative action programmes helped reduce minority ethnic disadvantages in the USA.”

Notes for editors

For media enquiries contact:

Mike Addelman
Press Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567


Tony Trueman
British Sociological Association
Tel: 07964 023392