The Paradox of LGB+ Employment Status According to the UK Census

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Feb 21, 2024

People figures arranged as a question mark on an LGBT pride flag, photo by Valerii Evlakhov/Getty Images

Photo by Valerii Evlakhov/Getty Images

Employment and unemployment are mutually exclusive terms. A person cannot be both employed and unemployed. Nor can a group of people be simultaneously more frequently employed and more frequently unemployed than another.

However, labour statistics recently released by the UK's Office of National Statistics (ONS) from the 2021 Census of England and Wales suggest just this. Specifically, the data show that gay and lesbian adults (respondents aged 16 years or older) are more likely to be employed than heterosexual adults (70.4% vs. 57.8%). But the same data also show that gay and lesbian adults are more likely to be unemployed than heterosexual adults (4.9% vs 3.3%).

Among other applications, census data are used to inform policy decisions. A paradox like this makes it difficult to interpret and action these findings. What has caused it—and how can these statistics be better understood to make them more useful for policymakers?

To start, it's important to look at how employment is categorised in the census and how ONS calculated these labour statistics.

Census respondents can be categorised into two main groups:

  1. Economically active people, who currently have a job, are actively seeking a job and can start work in the next two weeks, or are waiting to start an accepted job in that timeframe.
  2. Economically inactive people, who are not looking for a job or could not start work in the next two weeks.

The second group includes students, retired people, primary caretakers of homes or families, people who don't work due to long-term illness or disability, and people who have stopped looking for work despite needing or wanting a job.

Employment and unemployment rates in a population are calculated by dividing the number of employed and unemployed people, respectively, by the overall number of people in that population. In the abovementioned ONS labour statistics, the overall population represents all adults, regardless of whether they are economically active or not.

So, while it is true that 70.4% of gay and lesbian adults are employed and 4.9% are unemployed, these are percentages of the total number of gay and lesbian adults, including the economically inactive. The same can be said for heterosexual adults.

Should economically inactive people be included in the population when calculating employment and unemployment rates?

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This raises an essential question: should economically inactive people be included in the population when calculating employment and unemployment rates? Unfortunately, there is no right answer, as it depends how the data will be used.

For the specific purpose of understanding whether one group may be more or less likely to be employed than another, including people who are economically inactive in these calculations may not be appropriate because we do not expect economically inactive people to be working or looking for work. By definition, they have temporarily or permanently left the labour market.

In fact, the International Labour Organization (ILO) defines the unemployment rate as a “measure of the underutilization of the labour supply…[i]t reflects the inability of an economy to generate employment for those persons who want to work but are not doing so, even though they are available for employment and actively seeking work.” By this definition, the unemployment rate represents the percentage of people who are unemployed among an economically active population.

Further examination of the Census data shows that gay and lesbian adults are less likely to be economically inactive than heterosexual adults (24.8% vs 38.8%). In part, this is because they are disproportionately younger than heterosexual adults and, consequently, more likely to be of working age. In fact, only 6.3% of gay and lesbian adults are of retirement age, compared to 23.1% of heterosexual adults.

These differences in economic inactivity are important. They raise additional concerns about including this group when looking at employment rates among different sexual orientations.

So, what would happen if we applied the ILO definition to the labour statistics by sexual orientation?

RAND Europe explored just this question in our independent analysis of the Census data, Counting LGBTQ+ Lives in England and Wales, which more broadly looked at LGB+ adults versus heterosexual adults. Several observations stem from our analysis.

First, we found similar paradoxical results for employment and unemployment rates, and differences in economic inactivity, among LGB+ adults versus heterosexual adults.

Figure 1 Labour Statistics by Sexual Orientation with the Economically Inactive Population

Economically Active and Inactive

LGB+

  • 63.8% Employed
  • 6.3% Unemployed
  • 29.9% Economically Inactive

Heterosexual

  • 57.9% Employed
  • 3.3% Unemployed
  • 38.8% Economically Inactive

Second, when economically inactive adults were excluded from calculations, the percentages of both employed and unemployed adults increased. This, as you might expect, is because the numbers of employed and unemployed adults stayed the same, but the total number they're divided by decreased.

Figure 2 Labour Statistics by Sexual Orientation Without the Economically Inactive Population

Economically Active Only

LGB+

  • 91.0% Employed
  • 9.0% Unemployed

Heterosexual

  • 94.5% Employed
  • 5.5% Unemployed

Third, once that change was made, the paradox was resolved and the interpretation of the findings from our independent analysis became logically consistent. Among the economically active population, LGB+ adults are more likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed than heterosexual adults. The revised labour statistics are now easier to interpret and are actionable for policy decisionmakers. Nevertheless, a better understanding of what might be causing lower employment rates among LGB+ adults is needed so that policies can be appropriately targeted.

Importantly, the inclusion of economically inactive people was not, itself, the cause of the paradox. As mentioned earlier, for some purposes it is completely reasonable to include economically inactive people when calculating employment and unemployment rates. Rather, the paradox we see in the ONS statistics is specific to this case; that is, the percentage of economically inactive people among gay and lesbian adults (and LGB+ adults combined) is larger and younger than the heterosexual group.

What lessons should we learn from this example?

Census data are frequently used to inform policy decisions. Independent of paradoxes, it is important to ensure that these data are communicated in ways that are meaningful to the public and actionable for policymakers. When paradoxes arise, which is not common, but happens from time to time, it is important to ask questions about the underlying data and to identify their root cause. Often, paradoxes are caused by a “lurking variable,” which in this case was economic inactivity. Finally, it is vital to consider if the way in which the data are reported depicts an accurate and consistent story and the potential consequences of getting this wrong.


Robert Romanelli is a research leader at RAND Europe.

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