Here are two things you might already know. As Britain prepares for life outside the EU, repeat warnings of economic oblivion have been made. Despite this, things have been good enough amid the chaos for the economy to create half a million more jobs over the past year, sending employment to a record high.
The dole queue has not been this short since Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel held the No 1 spot with Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) in March 1975, not long after the UK first joined what is now the EU four decades ago.
We all know the joblessness of the decade that followed, characterised by the miners’ strikes of the turbulent 1980s, has been etched into our collective consciousness ever since. Work and getting on in life through employment have gone hand in glove, with any politician able to bottle the formula to keep the jobs figures rising rewarded at the ballot box.
In the past decade, the strength of the jobs market has been a powerful weapon for the Conservatives, despite the Brexit damage about to be unleashed on their watch. Theresa May wheels out the employment figures at every opportunity, including at prime minister’s questions last week, in a mantra that has become all too familiar.
David Cameron before her would brag that Britain had become the jobs factory of Europe. After slumping into the worst recession since the second world war under Labour, we were back with a bang with the Tories. Or so the story went.
On many levels, the jobs recovery has been good news. Work can be the bedrock of personal economic security. With 440,000 people starting work last year; taking overall employment to 32.6 million, it might seem there’s little not to like.
Brexit has yet to bite. Our departure could be delayed, or even averted altogether. But still something isn’t quite right with the jobs picture, as other signs of economic stress become increasingly evident with less than 30 days to go.
First, it is worth noting that jobs figures are notoriously backwards looking, providing a snapshot several months old by the time they are released. Companies have started to announce more job losses in recent weeks, including Honda. But beyond this, there is something else more sinister about our record employment levels.
Economists think they may have found the reason why, in an idea put forward by the Bank of England rate-setter Gertjan Vlieghe late last month.
The argument goes like this: companies have hired workers to keep up with meeting the demands of their customers during the current period of Brexit uncertainty, when they might typically have invested in plant, machinery and other efficiency-boosting technology to meet that demand during more normal times.
People are easier to hire and fire when companies are reluctant to invest for the longer term, and we know business investment has been weak: corporate spending in the UK has fallen for four quarters in a row for the first time since the last recession.
Buying new machines and ploughing significant sums into office, plant or factory equipment might prove costly or even impossible to reverse. However, unlike in continental Europe, British workers are easier to get rid of should things head south.
“Firms want to avoid making such investments at the wrong time or in the wrong sector, so when uncertainty rises, it pays to wait. But employment decisions are less costly to reverse,” Vlieghe reckons.
Far from being a signal of economic strength, continued employment growth might instead reflect the current economic malaise.
Scratch further beneath the surface of the record jobs figures and there are further reasons to feel uncomfortable about the health of the economy.
Theresa May might beat the Conservative drum that roughly 3 million jobs have been created in the long jobs boom of the past decade. However, two-thirds of the growth is from migrant workers. While not at the expense of the British population – as the proportion of British citizens in work has also risen – it is nonetheless ironic for a party that takes such a dim view of immigration.
Two-thirds of the jobs boom has also come from growth in atypical work, such as self-employment, work on zero-hours contracts and agency work, according to analysis by the Resolution Foundation thinktank. Atypical work has plateaued in recent years but nonetheless remains elevated versus pre-crisis levels.
May’s reductivist view focuses on the quantity alone, when the quality of work under the Tories has worsened.
Another driver of jobs growth has been the increase in the state pension age for women, to the anger of a generation who planned for retirement at 60 only to see the goalposts moved to 65. Try telling the Waspi campaign that record employment, as women are forced to work for longer, is entirely good news.
We are all also working for longer. Over-50s make up about a third of the entire UK workforce, up from around one in five in the early 1990s. Living costs are rising fast and meagre pensions or limited savings are forcing us to stay in work longer.
Britain is working to the bone to keep pace with modern life, with the total of all our working hours soaring above 1bn last year. Record employment levels mean we spend fewer hours with friends and family, reducing our ability to care for the young, old or sick.
But it isn’t just the rising cost of living pushing us to spend more time in employment than ever before, the re-engineering of the welfare state by the Tories has also played a significant role. Record employment has, to an extent, been the corollary of reduced job security and the greater financial cost of unemployment. Workers’ bargaining power has slumped, risk aversion has increased.
May might argue that the Tories have only instilled a positive approach to work by discouraging a life on benefits. But employment is no panacea.
Food bank usage has soared while there are growing numbers of people trapped by in-work poverty. Around 6m UK jobs pay below the “real living wage” of £9 an hour across the country and £10.55 in London, with as many as a fifth in the public sector.
All of this fuels the perception that the economy isn’t working for everyone. May ought to ask herself: how can it be simultaneously true that Britain has never had it so good, with record numbers of people in work, yet enough of those same people felt so left behind by the economy as to vote for Brexit?
Between 2008 and 2015 real wages fell by 10%, the biggest wage cut of any European economy, with the exception of Greece. Income inequality is rising, while insecurity in the workplace is much higher today than it was before the crash, just before we face a potentially damaging no-deal Brexit.
The Conservatives may sing about their economic record, with the strength of the jobs market as their trump card. But look beneath the headlines and there is less to smile about. The labour market is a false read on the economy before the real damage of Brexit is even done.