Unemployment and Class in Ireland: An Analysis of the Quarterly Household Survey, Q1 2009


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Last month, Seán O’Riain wrote a post for progressive economy, which used the Quarterly Household Survey (Q1 2009 ) to throw some light on the class aspects of the recent rise in unemployment in Ireland.

the major trend that stands out is the disastrous collapse in working class employment with growing differences between the position of those with third level education and those without…While employment for those with third level education has remained stable over the past year, the collapse for all others has been in the range of 10 to 20%. Unemployment has increased for those with third level education but employment has largely held up… While the pain is being felt all around, the sectoral, occupational and educational data points to both the particularly disastrous short-term and long-term effects of the recession on those in manual and service occupations… Given what appear to be high rates of intra-class marriage in Ireland… the worst effects of the recession are likely concentrated in particular classes and households…”

The following post does little to add to Seán’s analysis, I’m sorry to say, so you’re probably better off just clicking on the link to the original article, rather than trawling through my stats and analysis. The conclusions are broadly the same, and my route is a lot more convoluted.

In my defence, though, what I want to do here is not just say that I agree with Seán’s post – I want to explain why I agree with it, and I want to do that by referring to the Quarterly Survey. When Tim Berners-Lee made the Web, the saying goes, he made plenty of it. There’s always room for one more page.

But, if you’ve already read Seán’s post, and you don’t fancy my take on the household survey, but you’ve got to kill at least thirty minutes before it’s time to catch your train, well you can always go where I go to waste my time. (A tip: stay with the shotgun until after round five. And always aim for the head.)

For the rest of ye, though, have a read. I promise to try to make it as interesting as possible.

Certainly, I found it interesting that one of the employment sectors least affected by the current recession in Ireland is the sector that deals with finance, insurance, and real estate. Indeed, it is one of the few employment sectors to see an increase in employment over the past twelve months, and this in spite of the global financial market implosion. Class is about power: who has it, and who doesn’t. And the ability to protect your class interests – indeed, your financial interests – while all around you are losing theirs, is one manifestation of that power.

Before we get into industrial sectors, and class relations, though, let’s have a look at occupations.


There are nine broad occupational groups used by the Quarterly Household Survey.

1. Managers and Administrators
2. Professional
3. Associate Professional and Technical
4. Clerical and Secretarial
5. Craft and Related
6. Personal and Protective Service
7. Sales
8. Plant and Machine Operatives
9. Other

These groups are based on the SOC – the Standard Occupational Classification – which was developed in 1990 and revised in 2000. The Household Survey broad groupings have been adapted from the UK SOC to reflect Irish occupational structures and realities. Unfortunately, the breakdown of those broad groupings into specific occupations is not available on the CSO’s website, so it’s not so straightforward to find out what changes have been made. However, they will give you the breakdown upon request.

Just for now, though, I’m going to work off the premise that the sub-major, minor group and unit group structures of these major groups are broadly similar to the SOC 2000. There are going to be differences, but they are not going to be of such a nature as to change the dynamics of the broad groupings. In other words, the lists of occupations as given by the SOC 2000 should give a good enough indication of the type of occupations that each broad grouping is dealing with, and the links above are to the SOC 2000 occupation listings.

One other thing.

The Quarterly Household Survey is a sample survey. It works from a ‘pool’ of 195,000 households. These households are spread across the country, and are split into 2,600 sections, with each section containing 75 households. Each quarter, 15 households out of each block of 75 is sampled, giving an aggregate of 39,000 households each quarterly survey. The 15 households in each block are asked to contribute to five consecutive quarterly surveys, after which the 15 are replaced by another 15 within the same block. After five years, the ‘pool’ is exhausted, and the process begins again.

So each quarterly survey is based on 39,000 households, or around 2.7% of the entire number of households in the state. The CSO then uses that survey to build up a national picture. The size and spread of the sample survey allows such a national analysis, especially since we’re dealing with trends. But do keep in mind that the official-sounding numbers that are published in the survey are extrapolations from this ‘pool’ of sample participants.

1. Occupations

The survey estimates that there were 1,965,600 people aged 15 and over who were employed in Ireland for the first quarter of 2009 (Jan-Mar). By far the largest broad occupational grouping was “managers and administrators” – a group which includes Ireland’s sizeable number of small business owners and managers – followed by “clerical and secretarial”. The lowest grouping was “plant & machine operatives.”

irish employment 2009

In terms of changes in year-on-year employment, from Q1 2008 to Q1 2009, the decline in broad working class occupations, such as those in crafts, plant and machine operatives, and sales, is quite stark. However, what is surprising is the estimated rise in employment for those in professional occupations, as well as in personal and protective service occupations. Obviously there have been professionals who have lost their jobs over the past 12 months, but, as a class of workers, not only have they held their own, they have actually increased their numbers. The sizeable drop in managers and administrators is reflective of the number of small businesses that have cut back on staff, and/or shut down in the past year. ‘Craft and related’ contains skilled construction workers, while ‘sales’ contains shop assistants and retail workers.


The figures in the graph, which again are estimates based on the sample survey, are below:

Craft & Related: -56,300
Other: -34,500
Plant & Machine Operatives: -26,500
Sales: -22,400
Managers & Administrators: -17,000
Clerical & Secretarial: -6,300
Assoc. Professional & Technical: -1,300
Personal & Protective Service: 1,400
Professional: 4,400

In a comment left on progressive-economy, the Irish Times’ columnist, Sarah Carey, argued that:

Isn’t the distinguishing feature of this recession that its a “middle class recession”. In the 80’s large scale manufacturing jobs were lost. This time there is carnage amongst professionals.”

I suppose the answer there is, well, no. The “carnage” is in industry and retail sales, along with construction, trades, and unskilled work.


2. Broad Economic Sectors

The Q1 2009 Household Survey is the first where the European industrial activity classification – the NACE Rev.2 classification – has been adopted as the primary classification of industrial sectors. Previously, the NACE Rev.1.1 was used, and had been since 1997. The CSO has reclassified all figures back to Q1 2004, and there are no plans to backdate the NACE Rev.2 series further than Q1 2004.

There are 21 economic sectors in the NACE Rev.2, and for its purposes, the Quarterly Household Survey has amalgamated some of these to give 14 economic sectors.

These are:

A. Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing
B-E. Industry. This includes the following NACE Rev.2 sectors: B. Mining and Quarrying ; C. Manufacturing ; D. Electricity, Gas, Steam And Air Conditioning Supply ; and E. Water Supply; Sewerage, Waste Management And Remediation Activities.
F. Construction
G. Wholesale and Retail Trade; Repair of Motor Vehicles and Motorcycles
H. Transport and Storage
I. Accommodation and Food Service Activities
J. Information and Communication
K-L. Financial, Insurance and Real Estate Activities. This includes the following NACE Rev.2 sectors: K. Financial And Insurance Activities ; L. Real Estate Activities
M. Professional, Scientific And Technical Activities
N. Administrative And Support Service Activities
O. Public Administration And Defence; Compulsory Social Security
P. Education
Q. Human Health and Social Work Activities
R-U. Other NACE Activities. This includes the following NACE Rev.2 sectors: R. Arts, Entertainment And Recreation ; S. Other Service Activities ; T. Activities Of Households As Employers; Undifferentiated Goods- And Services-Producing Activities Of Households For Own Use ; U. Activities Of Extraterritorial Organisations And Bodies

The aggregate figures for employment in each of the economic sectors, as used by the Household Survey, show that in the first quarter of 2008 the largest employment sector was ‘wholesale and retail trade’, followed by ‘industry’, followed by ‘construction’.

Incidentally, the smallest employment sector was information and communication, which includes I.T., copy-writing, web design, and journalism – the type of employment sectors within which a good number of Irish bloggers and blog commentators seem to reside.

Something to keep in mind, perhaps, when you read bloggers and blog commentators putting forward their experience, or their friends’ experience, as somehow “typical” and “enlightening.”

totals_q1_2008.jpg[Adapted from Table 3. Seasonally adjusted series of persons aged 15 and over classified by sex, ILO economic status and NACE Rev.2 economic sector.]

Since Q1 2008, however, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the country’s fortunes, with the collapse of the banking sector, and a serious drop-off in construction activity and real estate sales.

We know from the figures above that the occupations most affected by the recession so far have been those in ‘craft and related’, ‘plant and machine operatives’, ‘sales’, and ‘managers and administrators [including owners and small businesses]’. We’ve also seen that the occupations least affected have been those of professionals – with an reported increase in professional and associate professional employment.

How does this play out with regard to broad employment sector?

changeq1_2009.jpg [Adapted from Table 3. Seasonally adjusted series of persons aged 15 and over classified by sex, ILO economic status and NACE Rev.2 economic sector.]

Not surprisingly, the economic sectors with the highest proportion of craft workers, machine and plant operatives, and sales workers have been the most affected: namely, construction, industry, and retail.

Similarly, the employment sectors with a high proportion of professionals have seen an increase – that is, teaching, public administration, and human health and social work activities.

Two other sectors have seen a small increase in employment.

The first is ‘information and communication.’ This employment sector saw employment rise by 1.12% from Q1 2008 to Q1 2009. Now, given the fact that the figures are based on a sample survey, and that there was a change from using the NACE Rev.1.1 in 2008, to using NACE Rev.2 in Q1 2009, it is a figure that is well within the margin of error. At the very least, though, this sector has ‘held its own’.

In terms of a recession, that’s quite something. This economic sector includes I.T., copy-writing, web design, and journalism – the type of employment sectors within which a good number of Irish bloggers and blog commentators seem to reside. Something to keep in mind, perhaps, when you read bloggers and blog commentators putting forward… oh well, you know.

The other sector is ‘Financial, Insurance and Real Estate Activities’. Again, there’s a slight increase in employment: 0.3% on the Q1 2008 figure, and the usual caveats about samples and margins of error apply.

Given the meltdown in the Irish banking sector, in real estate and house sales, and the drop-off in car and health insurance sales, this sector is also ‘holding its own’, and again that is quite an achievement. I suppose it just goes to show that the free market always brings it home and saves the day for its entrepreneurs and risk-takers.

Either that, or the use of billions of taxpayers’ euros- via the bank guarantee and NAMA proposals – has cocooned the banking, financial and real estate sector from the effects of its own disaster. The entire thrust of government policy at this moment is fixated on saving the money-lenders and property speculators, while the other sectors of the economy are left to their own defences.

Which brings us to the working week
Royal Canal Dublin

3. Usual Hours of Work, Q1 2008 – Q1 2009.

The was a noticeable shift in the aggregates for hours of work in Ireland from Q1 2008 to Q1 2009. Not only are more people unemployed, more people are working less hours than before. Part-time work has increased, and this can be read as a direct response to the recession, that people are keeping their jobs, but for now, and only just. The largest drop-off was in people working 45 and over hours, which could be read as reflecting not only an increase in unemployment, but also reflecting a decrease in overtime. Less people are working, while those who are working are working, on aggregate, less hours.

The shift in working hours needs to be taken on board with regard to the current dismissal by the government of a stimulus and/or investment package. Such a package, used wisely, could do for the wider economy what it has so obviously done for the banking and real estate sector – i.e. help towards holding the line.


Businesses and organisations are using part-time hours, and cut-backs in overtime, as means of keeping people employed. It is here where government help and assistance needs to be directed, instead of using the public purse to clear private gambling debts.


This post is supposed to be about unemployment and class, rather than stimulus packages. I did say that it was going to be convoluted, no?

But it has been a long post, and I don’t want to keep you away from the work on your desk, so I think I’ll come back to the final part later in the week.

That is, education and unemployment, and the class dynamics that reveal themselves through the household survey.



2 Responses

  1. Gary Younge

    August 5, 2009 1:39 am

    This was really interesting. I was particularly interested in the issue of intraclass marriage and was wondering if you could point me in the direction of the gender consequences of this recession for some work I’m doing.

  2. Conor McCabe

    August 5, 2009 6:35 am

    Hi Gary, thanks for the comment. The point about intraclass marriage was made by Sean O’Riain in his post on progressive economy – he was referring to the study linked here: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~sfos0006/papers/bjs2003.pdf

    I don’t know of any study yet that looks at gender and the current recession. Again, Sean O’Riain might me of help here. His commentary on the current recession and class is here: http://www.progressive-economy.ie/2009/06/class-and-employment-decline.html

    The question of gender and the recession is an interesting one, and has got me thinking. I must go back over the household survey reports with that question in mind, and see what comes out of it. cheers.