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Apr 27, 2022

In Episode 3 of Series 4 of the DIAL Podcast, we are in discussion with Richard Blundell. Richard is the Ricardo Professor of Political Economy at UCL, director of the ESRC Centre for the Microeconomic Analysis of Public Policy at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the principal investigator of a DIAL project looking at human capital and inequality during adolescence and working life. In this episode we explore the work done by this project tackling inequalities in adolescence and working life.



Christine Garrington  0:00 

Welcome to DIAL a podcast where we tune in to evidence on inequality over the life course. In series four, we're looking at what's been learned from DIAL projects about how and when inequality manifests in our lives and what its longer-term consequences might be. For this episode, we're delighted to be joined by Richard Blundell, David Ricardo Professor of Political Economy at UCL, and director of the ESRC Centre for the Microeconomic Analysis of Public Policy at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Richard is also the principal investigator of a DIAL project, looking at human capital and inequality during adolescence and working life. So welcome, Richard, thank you very much for joining us today.

Richard Blundell  0:40 

Thank you, Christine.

Christine Garrington  0:41 

I wonder if you can just start by telling us a little more specifically what this project has been investigating and why.

Richard Blundell  0:48 

Yeah, I'd be delighted to. What we're looking at in this project is the evolution of inequality through adolescence and working life. Relating to the education streams, people choose how it affects their outcomes going forward into working life, what happens during working life, what kind of training seems to work, what routes to better jobs are for people who don't, for example, go to higher education, university. Whether training can offset some of the gender gaps that we've been seeing opening up in the labour market, and whether choices in higher education matter for future labour market outcomes. So it's very much about not the early years of school - there's another project looking at that, that runs in parallel with our project, similar investigators, we're working together with them. What we're looking at here then is from adolescence onwards, and how the inequality evolves during adolescence and working life.

Christine Garrington  1:58 

So one area of focus has been women and work really very, very interested in in this, you've looked at the gender pay gap, the role of childcare, on women's ability to return to work, and indeed, on the role of job training, among other things. So what would you say for you are the key things to have emerged from this particular area of work Richard?

Richard Blundell  2:18 

Yes, this is obviously absolutely central, the kind of pay gap between men and women and how it opens up through working life is something that's been really hard to tackle and getting behind this, what are the drivers of it, and how to address it is really key to solving some of the most important inequalities that we see in working life. We're working with researchers, mainly economists, and education researchers in Norway, in the UK and in France. That's rather good, because those three countries have rather different systems of routes through education, into work, and different opportunities for women and men as they progress through their working life. And we wanted to understand what those differences could tell us about the gender pay gap. And therefore what policies could be perhaps most useful in addressing the gender pay gap.

Christine Garrington  3:25 

There are a couple of key things to come out of this one there.

Richard Blundell  3:28 

Some of its, you know, in some sense, pretty obvious. That is that work experience is really important for pay and for earnings as you go through your career for career progression. And of course, when children come along, women spend a fair amount of time not in work, perhaps still in employment on maternity leave, but not actually gaining the work experience that turns out to be so important in career progressions. We've kind of known that. But it's become really acute, even part-time work is really not sufficient for women to keep up at work with their male colleagues. There are two kind of routes to addressing this. One is to provide good quality childcare, that can have two major benefits. One is it can provide good quality inputs and care for children, which is particularly important, especially in disadvantaged families. But it can also allow women to spend more time at work and developing their career profiles. There's also a very large importance of mothers and fathers spending time with their children. And so when children come along, it's kind of inevitable, really, that work may take second place, and that there'll be less time engaged in work experience in progression. And remember, it's exactly these years in the 20s and early 30s, where all the big career progression is made in working life, and women really fall behind there. So an alternative we've been looking at, and it turns out to be rather interesting is to work instead of on work experience, but on the human capital itself, once women come back into work.

Christine Garrington  5:25 

So what might that look like in reality, then Richard?

Richard Blundell  5:27 

So you can imagine the following scenario, a woman or a man, but unfortunately, it's particularly typically, the woman who takes time off, once she returns to work, you can imagine her engaging in a training programme, and that can make up some of the loss. Well, we weren't that optimistic about that to begin with. But we've become more optimistic for two reasons, particularly in the UK and in Norway. In Norway, using the Population Register, we can follow people, right the way through their working careers, we can follow the whole of the Norwegian population. It's an exhaustive data set on everything everybody does - their qualifications, where they're working, their family structure, and so on. And what we found is that it's particularly successful for women to who've had a child early on in their career to return to some kind of schooling qualifications, and that can have a big boost to their career profiles and address some of the gender gaps that occur. In the UK it turns out similarly, women who returned to work spend quite a bit of time in training. And we found that that training, work related on the job training, it has to be accredited, and it has to be work related, those things have a payoff. And we feel that there's real room for improving this type of training. It's all part of designing education and training routes, during your working career, that work much better than the ones we currently have. And boy in in the UK, we've been training way behind in the organisation of formal routes into education and training through your working life, especially for those who don't go to university.

Christine Garrington  7:29 

Now, I want to move on to talk about COVID. And obviously, although not expected when your project began, the pandemic, obviously, as well as being a terrible thing for us all did provide, however, what I'm guessing was quite a fascinating and important opportunity to look at the impacts of COVID on on people's lives in this context of inequality. So what did you, what did you get to focus on there?

Richard Blundell  7:52 

Once we were into the first major wave of COVID, it was clear that it was going to exacerbate a lot of the inequalities during adolescence, during education and during working life, let alone health of course. The longer run impact that we're seeing is on learning - the loss of learning, the loss of school time, the loss of engagement in learning, because of being not able to go to school, those children from deprived families have had much, much more learning loss over this period, than the privilege than children in more privileged families. It suddenly became clear that space was really important. But for learning for children, it was absolutely critical. If children didn't have a quiet place with good digital access, a good setup for engaging in online classes, then that already put them behind behind. And there's many studies showing there's a huge gradient in space, in digital access, in access to these kinds of technologies across the income and and socio economic gradient. Losses have been extremely large, up to half a year of schooling loss for many, many children. The second point is that if you're at home with educated parents, who are working from home and still have time to interact with you, you're going to get that input from them. schooling is the great equaliser. It puts children from deprived backgrounds in an environment where they can learn perhaps things that they couldn't learn at home. And that was taken away. The work on Norway and France shows exactly the same there. So learning loss, huge. This doesn't usually happen in recessions by the way. This was very, very specific to COVID.

Christine Garrington  9:55 

And what about when you looked at matters related to work.

Richard Blundell  9:58 

All on the job training, apprenticeships just didn't happen. In fact, for those in their early careers, you know - 18, 19, 20 - there was an almost complete end to apprenticeships. Apprenticeships fell back by 70% or more for that younger group, exactly the group that I was mentioning before. It's vital that we get this on the job, accredited training, because they're the ones not going to university, those going to university have been served rather better. I know from my experience here that we've at UCL, we've been keeping online classes and activities going at a pretty high level, actually. And the kind of students that we have here, can engage in that quite fully. But that's very different for a student who didn't make it to university, and who's trying to gain their experience and training through apprenticeships, there's just been no engagement. So this loss of learning has been huge.

Christine Garrington  11:11 

I'm interested to know whether women were worse affected than men in this context?

Richard Blundell  11:16 

We thought it might affect women more but in fact, overall in employment and what have you, it's been pretty neutral in the UK, that's just because of the structure of industry we have here. But it hasn't been neutral at home. We've seen, of course, mothers and fathers both having to do more childcare, because schools have been closed during lockdown, or children have been at home during self-isolation, even in periods without lockdown. But mothers of taken, have borne the brunt of the childcare at home, we followed women and families in surveys throughout COVID. And found that although childcare activities have increased for both male and female parents, there really has been an extra load on women. And again, that's going to affect their careers, and other aspects of their life going forwards. All those things that we were concerned about before COVID. And that were the absolute centre of this project have all become all the more heightened through COVID. And I think the policy recommendations that have come out of this project are very, very relevant for the post COVID world that we're now entering.

Christine Garrington  12:41

Yeah, I wonder how how easy it has been? Or how difficult I guess it's probably the better question to to feed those recommendations in such a fast moving event that COVID has been and, you know, was it possible for that to feed through all of those findings, all of those important things into the policy sort of making cycle in order to try to mitigate some of those impacts? Or, or was that that must have been very challenging.

Richard Blundell  13:09 

For policy makers, at least civil servants have been very open, of course, to try and to figure out what's been going on. And remember, the initial policy responses, at least on simple measures of inequality have been remarkably successful. You know, we haven't ever had a recession, really, where there's been so much support thrown into the economy, of course, we're gonna have to pay for that. But some of the short run impacts, I think were mitigated, what we've focused on here, are the longer run ones, you know the the loss of learning, the loss of training, the loss of work experience, they're not showing up even yet, they're going to show up in the next few years. And it's critical, we have an opportunity now to address them. And there is a lot of interest across the whole policy world, and government and around the world. In addressing this. In fact, as part of this project, we fed into the G20 meetings last year in Rome, and a major part of our work was used to suggest a kind of coordinated approach to designing the best interventions now to address what's been going on with loss of education, and loss of work experience and training across more or less the whole developed world.

Christine Garrington  14:27 

Really great to hear that there's been such an appetite for findings like these important findings to feed into policy, but I guess the devil is in the detail, right?

Richard Blundell  14:37 

Unfortunately, these are gonna have to be huge programmes. And the thing about huge programmes is that they can be hugely expensive and not necessarily very effective. We need to get this right. We need to get these education interventions and these training interventions done in the most efficient and effective way. And that's where we can learn from other countries that do at least some things better, some things worse, we're all learning from each other. And this project which brought in, you know, Norway, which has a pretty effective system of education and training right across the board, not just for those going to university, which is where we tend to focus. And France, which has, again, a very different system. So we can learn, we can learn from that. But yeah, I see a long impact of COVID, not just long COVID. But it's hidden a bit at the moment, by the way, because of the uptick in the economy. You know, there's quite a demand for certain types of jobs, as you'd expect, when there's, you know, we're coming out of a big, big recession like that, but I'm pretty sure that that's hiding these big losses, they will turn up over time. So yeah, there's, there's a big hunger for this. We're feeding a lot of a huge amount and working a lot with Department of Education here with the Treasury on what what should be done with other policy groups. And similarly in Norway, and France.

Christine Garrington  16:08 

Now, I know we've talked about the labour market a bit, but I wonder whether there's anything else that you really would like to stress about that side of things, because this was a major part of your work?

Richard Blundell  16:19 

We had to invent things on the hoof and everyone was involved in that the furloughs remember, the furlough system didn't exist. In fact, in the UK, and in many other economies, we've not, we've not been particularly good at providing general what one might call social insurance. That is, if people fall on hard times get reduced earnings, you know, do we make up the difference? At least in the in the shortish run, we don't particularly do that very well, in the UK, we target very low incomes. We have a very targeted universal credit and benefit system. So it does prop up incomes at the bottom. And it does that actually quite well. Not always administratively perfectly, but it does it. But if you look at someone who's on a kind of lower middle income, which is the group that really was hit during COVID, there's very little support for them. Universal credit doesn't do a great job, it just doesn't replace their incomes - the furlough system did it replaced 80% of their income. And, and it was very successful in doing that, to the extent that as I said, you know, income falls and inequality increases didn't happen in the way they often do during recessions. So in that sense, these policies have been very successful. On the downside, you know, they're the things I mentioned, they've been very good at short run income support, at least for for many groups. But they've not been very good yet at addressing these losses in, in human capital investments. And work is about two things. It's about earning money today. And it's about in investing in skills that will earn you even more, or give you a better career profile, at least in the future. And it's those longer term investments that I feel, or a fear of being really left to one side.

Christine Garrington  18:17 

I wonder whether you've seen anything that relates to how these inequalities manifest in respect of where people live, where they come from, is there something around place that's quite important as well?

Richard Blundell  18:28 

We kind of knew there were geographical differences and differences by family background, it just, you know, we can see that in workings of our society. But I didn't realise how big they were. And I think it's been quite a shock to us. It's not surprising, you know, that the emphasis now is on levelling up, at least it's suggested it is in education is very important. What we found in this research, you know, looking at how well people do at school, and then into university, if they go there, and then into work is really striking, you know, some areas of the UK, for example, and this would be true in other economies as well, by the way, very few children actually make it to university. Take areas like Grimsby or Skegness those kinds of places we almost think of as left behind communities, children just don't do so well. And not only that, if they do manage to get into higher education, they often don't return to those communities. So those communities, once you look at people in work that just have many, many fewer people with higher education qualifications and skills to other areas. Let's call them the thriving areas, many of which are in the southeast or in the more successful cities. And these differences are really important because they're having huge impacts in the way people think about their well being levelling up political discourse.

Christine Garrington  20:07 

You talked earlier a bit about their fabulous data in Norway that you had available to you. But we've also got some great data here in the UK, haven't we, particularly when it comes to tracking young people through education?

Richard Blundell  20:20 

We have the National Pupil database that follows all children through school, through higher education, or through their education and training and into work right up to about the age of 28/29 now. So we're, and that will go on. So this is a remarkable, a remarkable dataset of the kind that you would typically think of finding only in a Scandinavian country. So this has allowed us to do these differences. And we can look at two children doing exactly the same courses in the same university, and just look at the differences of outcome by parental background and they're still there, they're still quite important. So parental background really matters. But so does course choices and university choices. These things, I guess we knew that have a big impact. All these things that people are doing through their their education, and early working lives and at university have a long lasting impact. And many of the differences you can take back to geography, and parental background, and the early education investments. This is really providing a real detail in what's driving the inequalities that we see at least in working, working careers.

Christine Garrington  21:47 

Yeah, on that note, I'd like to put a final question to you really about, you know, for those interested who in tackling inequality, obviously, including yourself and your fellow researchers, the wonderful team that you've talked about there. But for those who have responsibility for creating interventions through policy or practice, are there any essential takeaways, implications or recommendations for your project that you'd like to share?

Richard Blundell  22:11 

If there's something we're going to really have to address the in the UK and elsewhere it's these geographic divides. It's what is creating a lot of the political turmoil, I think, whether it be almost in any elections, we've seen the left behind areas. You know, the evidence is clear, these geographical divides, by socioeconomic background, and by areas are really important and long lasting. And it's really up to us to figure out the best ways now, to address them as quickly as possible. They've been exacerbated through COVID and so they become even more urgent, I think, in the policy debate.

Christine Garrington  22:56 

And I guess my final final question, is there something specific that we should be focusing on?

Richard Blundell  23:03 

There's a lot, but let me just pick on one, it's a kind of old topic, it's the it's the point about good jobs. You can have successful interventions for people who come from, you know, backgrounds or haven't been quite successful at education investments, you can make better choices during education. And we've seen how, with the data and work we've been doing, how that can be improved. But it's really the match of the skills, the firms and the kind of work related nature of these training investments that's so important. And what we have learned here is that, you know, small interventions on one aspect of this are not going to solve the problems. So you can think of the example of the, of just providing a job. What we've seen here is that just providing a job, say, Amazon warehouse job is not really going to help much with career profiles, you really need to match workers, develop their skills, and bring the right kind of firms that can enhance career profiles into these more left behind deprived areas. If we can get that to work, then there's great hope that we can do something for the careers and wage profiles of people who've been doing rather less well than we'd like in society.

Christine Garrington  24:39 

Thanks to Richard Blundell for joining us for this episode of the DIAL podcast. You can find out more on the DIAL website at and also on the IFS website at Much of the work of Richard and his colleagues has also fed into the Deaton Review on inequality so do take a look there as well. We hope you enjoyed this episode, which is produced and presented by Chris Garrington of Research Podcasts.