UK employment at highest level on record (for 139th time)

DWP Press Office has let people know via twitter that 'there are more people in work than ever before'. Curiously enough, ministers said exactly the same thing when last month's labour market statistics came out. The coalition seems to be breaking this record on a regular basis, so how can people (like me) continue to say that its employment performance has been lamentable?

Easy: this is not a record that's difficult to break. Based on a quick calculation on ONS's employment series , this is the 139th time the record has been broken since 1971, when the data begins. It was broken 74 times under the previous government (and yes, they went on about it as well).

The explanation is simple: the UK adult population has been growing, and when the population grows employment growth is to be expected. The chart shows employment and population for everyone aged 16 or over, with the red lines showing occasions when the employment record has been broken.

(Why show the total adult population rather than the working age population? Because it's data for this group that the government is leaning on. It's only for the 16+ age group that the employment record has been broken under the coalition: for those aged 16-64 we have to go back to 2008 for the last record-breaking figures, even though the 16-64 population has been growing.The employment rate for 16-64 year olds is 71.4% on the latest data, compared to 73% at the start of 2008.)

There are two lessons. The first is that if we want a summary measure of the state of the labour market, the number of people in employment is pretty useless - employment and unemployment rates are what count. The second is that the government will use a useless measure if it sounds good and it thinks enough people will be fooled by it.