It is not so very long ago that the publication of unemployment figures carried a significance far beyond the immediate issue in play — the number of people unable to find work and therefore dependent on the State for basic supports. The figures were a forceful element in how wage levels were set; the higher the unemployment rate, the lower the cost of recruiting workers. That cruel pincer movement of capitalism applies as sharply as ever though very occasionally — as in our tech sector where pay rises are three times the national average — to employees’ advantage.
The job statistics were once regarded as a kind of judgment on how far society had advanced or regressed. They were often the prism, an unforgiving, unavoidable prism through which Government policies and, lest it be forgotten, our commitment to social justice were judged. The passage of time and the once unimaginable economic development underpinned by Ireland’s EU membership and foreign investment — as well as native innovation — have changed the atmosphere around the publication of these figures.
So too has an ever-weakening sense of collegiality. A new, less assuring sense that a rising tide need not lift all boats has become significant, divisive and unattractive. Unemployment figures are no longer an event or a judgment, they are a simple punctuation of housekeeping. This is, of course, one of the lucky consequences of our escape from crippling, socially and individually, levels of unemployment.
When the Cabinet met in Marino on Dublin’s northside yesterday it had a full agenda, everything from chaos in hospitals’ emergency departments to how well-intentioned plans around how the RIC and DMP might be remembered went so very wrong. It did not, however, have to contend with eviscerating unemployment figures. First some context: From 1986 unemployment fell from 17.1% to 12.9% in 1990 before rising to 15.7% in 1993. From then it fell every year until 2001, and remained around 5% until 2007. In 2008, the rate began to climb again, and stood at 15% in 2012, before falling to 8.6% in 2016. These cold figures, for those too young to remember, are incapable of recording the human tragedy they represented
Even if it is remembered that the method of recording these figures has changed in recent years CSO figures yesterday
show the number on the Live Register has fallen to pre-crash levels. Data shows the seasonally adjusted number on the register fell to a 12-year low of 185,300 in December, down 1,100 on the previous month. This is the lowest level recorded since January 2008. In unadjusted terms, it represents an annual decrease of 17,673 or 8.9%. Though the register is not a full measure of unemployment as part-time workers can sometimes claim benefits, it has fallen parallel to the official unemployment metric, which hit 4.8%. The number of long-term unemployed at the end of 2019 was 67,558, recording an annual decrease of 15%. As election manifestoes are finalised this achievement should not be taken for granted — as Government candidates remind us despite the great irony of the fact that by realising something close enough to full employment the issue is all but taken off the agenda.