Strong jobs data obscures a new forgotten people

Jobs growth is real, but so is the growing gap between wages and the cost of living.

Jobs growth is real, but so is the growing gap between wages and the cost of living. Photo: Getty

Thursday’s jobs report from the Bureau of Statistics continued the remarkable story of employment growth during 2017 – though not everyone will be cheering.

The 35,000 jobs created in December in seasonally adjusted terms (25,000 in the more reliable trend terms) was at the upper end of the spectrum of economist forecasts and roughly double the average consensus forecast.

While only 44 per cent of the December jobs were full-time, over the full year that figure was 75 per cent.

Time to pop the champagne, you might think? Well not quite.

For some years there has been a chasm opening up between haves and have-nots in Australia that gives each piece of positive news a sour taste for many.

This was clearly evident in reader comments on Wednesday in response to The New Daily‘s report of consumer confidence hitting a four-year high.

How could those numbers be correct, they asked, when so many people in the community were hurting?

Some suggested the ANZ-Roy Morgan survey must be deeply flawed, though the very next day the Westpac-Melbourne Institute measure of confidence said the same thing.

Both surveys are snapshots that, as Roy Morgan Research puts it, “systematically weight our samples against population averages” – meaning that the answers they produce are an accurate average of the position of survey respondents.

But the headline numbers won’t fool political strategists, who will be well aware that the year of jobs growth has done nothing to boost the government’s popularity.

Voters who feel they are being left behind don’t give a stuff if the ‘average’ says they should be feeling chipper – something former PM John Howard discovered when he told Australians they’d “never had it so good”, a short time before losing his seat and government at the 2007 election.

The question in political terms is “who has it so good?”, and the reader comments below show that for many the answer is “not me!”

Neil Barker from Melbourne wrote: “It is not logical for consumers to be confident about their future ability to spend … when educational, medical, housing and general living costs are rising above inflation, at the same time as wages are growing below inflation.”

Pete Turner of the Queensland University of Technology wrote: “Everyone I know is worse off than they were ten years ago. Power bills have risen dramatically, housing is now not affordable to purchase and most of those I know are paying over 30 per cent of their take home pay in rent.”

And Melbourne-based mortgage broker Graham Evans wrote: “Out on the front line I can tell you that people are concerned about job security, underemployment, rising utility costs, no or very small pay rises and even physical security.”

Those are valuable points to keep in mind when reading Thursday’s jobs numbers.

Working for what?

On one hand, landing a new job brings psychological and physical health benefits, and those in secure full-time or part-time roles gain access to financial products such as mortgages and personal loans.

On the other hand, a large chunk of the electorate is being left behind, with record-low wages growth being completely at odds with the asset-based wealth growth of many Australians in recent years.

Surely the biggest factor infuriating non asset-rich Australians is the nagging feeling that their hard work and wages mean less and less each year, compared to the paper profits of the asset-rich.

It’s the feeling that some can earn more sitting in their owner-occupied kitchen drinking a cup of tea than the tradie working hard to unblock their sink.

The economic data, compiled by statisticians and economists using rigorous methodologies, are essentially sound – especially if you trust the smoothed ‘trend’ figures more than the volatile ‘seasonally adjusted’ number so often seen in headlines.

But it would be a very unwise political leader who stopped there, as the reader comments above highlight.

Jobs did grow at the fastest rates since 2005 in 2017. The aggregate hours worked did grow at over twice the rate of population growth. And consumer confidence is at a four-year high. These are all points to celebrate.

But just who those figures benefit, and who they leave behind, will have to be thrashed out a great deal more as we edge toward an increasingly likely early election.

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