Whatever misgivings you might have about economic growth – the endless pursuit of it, the climate crisis it appears to be driving – or its much-maligned yardstick, GDP (gross domestic product), it has transformed the labour market here, brought us to near full employment and stemmed the tide of forced emigration, for so long a blight on the State.
The number of people at work in the Irish economy rose to an all-time high of 2.6 million in the first quarter of this year, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), growing by more than 100,000 in the space of a year against a backdrop of supply chain disruption, inflation, job cuts across the tech sector and war. As recently as 1961, the Republic’s entire population was just 2.8 million.
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The CSO’s latest Labour Force Survey indicates that all sectors of the economy bar three experienced employment growth in the past year. The wholesale and retail trade sector alone saw employment jump by 29,500. The agriculture, forestry and fishing sector experienced the largest decrease (falling by 4,400 or 4.3 per cent), albeit for structural reasons.
Unemployment has also fallen, to just 4.1 per cent, the lowest rate of joblessness seen in the Irish economy since 2001 and a rate that equates to full employment.
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When the State was mired in financial difficulties post-2008, unemployment climbed to nearly 16 per cent. Much of the narrative back then was whether workers would fall into long-term unemployment, an issue that plagued the economy in the 1990s. Instead, we’ve had the fastest-growing economy in Europe for 10 years and a decade of jobs-rich growth.
The employment landscape here has expanded and changed beyond recognition, making comparisons with previous eras somewhat dubious. Women in employment and participation, traditionally lag points, have also been transformed.
The employment rate for women was 69.2 per cent, the highest level since the series began in 1998, while the unemployment rate for women (at 3.8 per cent) was at its lowest level. The participation rate for women, a key metric for any economy (the more productive economies have high rates of women working), was 59.5 per cent, which is still low by international standards but up from where it was.