UK real wages decline of over 10% is the most severe in the OECD (equal to Greece)

Published date
27 Jul 2016
The decline in UK real wages since the pre-crisis peak is the most severe in the OECD, equal only to Greece.

The decline in UK real wages since the pre-crisis peak is the most severe in the OECD, equal only to Greece. Both countries saw declines of 10.4% per cent between 2007 Q4 and 2015Q4. Apart from Portugal, all other OECD countries saw real wage increases, albeit mostly modest ones. oecd_w_jul16

(NB strictly the Greek decline is 10.41% and the UK 10.37%, but no way are the figures accurate beyond one decimal place.)

These results are derived from figures in the 2016 edition of the OECD’s Employment Outlook (released a couple of weeks ago, but it has taken me some time to get hold of the figures – see endnote for details of calculation). Even though most countries have seen real wages rise, growth rates are generally disappointing – under normal condition you might expect around 2% a year, and so 16% over eight years.

At the time their UK release contrasted a strong employment performance with weak earnings growth. The employment rate is at a record level, some 5 percentage points above the OECD average. On the other hand real wages “fell by more than 10% after 2007”. See the left and rightmost charts below:


The comparison of figures for individual countries therefore gives a fuller context for the wage decline shown on the OECD chart. To be balanced, the same should be done for employment – the OECD also provides figures for the ‘employment gap’ – defined at the top of the next chart:


(The figures are extracted from chart 1.2 in the Employment Outlook.)

The government’s argument is that flexibility on wages has permitted the employment gains. Whatever your view of the theory, the data show this is not obviously the case. In spite of the largest falls in wages, the UK ranks sixteenth (of 42) in terms of job gains (though the employment chart includes some non-OECD countries that have performed well). Any flexibility in Greece was completely pointless. Moreover the countries with the highest gains in real wages were also among those with the highest employment gains.

Plainly the relationship between wages and employment is not as straightforward as notions of flexibility might suggest. The following chart compares outcomes on employment with those on wages (the underlying data by country is in the annex).

The UK is very much an outlier – the only country where a good jobs performance is associated with a bad (terrible) real wages performance.

Employment v earnings, change over 2007Q4 to 2015Q4


Thankfully the UK is not Greece or Portugal in the bottom left quadrant. Taking the low wage road may have helped to keep jobs afloat in the UK; in contrast, in the majority of countries (in this sample) the employment gap was still negative but wages rose (bottom right quadrant). It is possible to think that economies/policymakers face a choice between these two options.  But this would be wrong – other countries have managed to have it both ways (top right quadrant).

These are mainly central European countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Switzerland along with Japan and Israel. All these countries have benefited from strong aggregate demand in recent years, in particular through exports and/or government spending.

Plainly this is not a decisive measure of performance, if such a thing exists. My sense is that outcomes in the post-crisis period should be assessed alongside a comparison of performance relative to the pre-crisis period (see for example my examination of the effect of spending cuts cross the OECD - here). On this basis of the countries above, those ‘A8’ countries (that joined the EU from 2004) may have performed strongly over the post-crisis period, but have seen a significant reduction since the pre-crisis days.

Nonetheless the above results offer a valuable perspective on labour market outcomes overall.

We knew already that the UK had endured the longest and steepest decline in real wages since at least 1830. We now know that this decline is matched by no other country apart from Greece. Gains in employment are not adequate compensation.

Endnote: the total wage decline is derived from Figure 1.6, by compounding the separate growth rates for 07Q4-09Q1, 09Q1-12Q4 and 12Q4-15Q4. Note that the OECD derive real wages from national accounts information, dividing total wages by hours worked and putting into real terms with the household consumption deflator. These can differ from those based on average weekly earnings and CPI inflation that tend to be used in the UK.

ANNEX: change over 2007Q4 to 2015Q4