WORK is good and unemployment is bad. Jobs mean productivity, prosperity and economic growth; not having one means benefits and struggle and a poor quality of life. Full employment is the goal. Statistics are the measure.

This is the logic employed by governments the world over when it comes to work and unemployment, particularly those like the UK, run by right-leaning parties – and never more so than when the Office for National Statistics (ONS) release the latest round of employment figures, as they did this week.

In the UK, employment is at a record high, rising at a similar rate in Scotland, with 76.3 per cent and 74.3 per cent respectively of working-age adults in work between September and November 2019. The rise follows similar increases in previous reports. Politicians celebrate, a new data point is plotted on a graph, workers keep on slogging and the country moves on, apparently more buoyant and prosperous than it was three months ago.

But behind such figures is a truth that is becomingly increasingly hard to ignore: that the measures of old mean little in today’s unequal, poverty-marred society where work no longer pays and jobs for life are few and far between. We might be going out to work of a morning, but it no longer follows that we’re paid enough to live on, that our work is secure and dignified, or that we’ll still be going to the same job next week, month or year. Rises in employment are little cause for celebration if they don’t take account of the kind of employment they measure.

Take, for example, the most recent ONS statistics on zero-hours contracts, which show 884,000 people in Britain employed with no guarantee of any work at all. These figures show an epidemic when compared to the 168,000 people on such contracts in 2010. What they don’t show is the impact that such insecurity and precarity has on someone’s life: shifts cancelled with an hour’s notice; no way to plan ahead financially; in direct competition with colleagues for work, and little possibility of taking on a second job when you’re permanently at the whim of your first one. The top-line success of Britain’s employment figures includes these people.

It also includes, when you dig deeper, a record increase in women working full-time, thought to be driving the overall growth. With feminists having long decried the low-paid, part-time work women find themselves locked in, and the undervaluing of domestic work and care, you might expect this to be welcome. But within the rise are the nearly four million so-called Waspi women affected by changes to the state pension age which mean they will have to work until 66 instead of 60. According to the campaign, many report struggling to continue in their previous jobs due to health issues – in many cases, caused by the difficult work they’ve undertaken for more than 40 years.

And crammed into this figure alongside them is a fall in the number of working-age women out of work to care for children and relatives. Many of those young children and sick relatives haven’t gone anywhere; instead, women across the country have chosen between this low or unpaid care work and a job that just about covers the costs of paying someone else to do it. Not to mention that analysis by the Fawcett Society suggests that many of these full-time employed women will effectively stop earning in mid-November thanks to the country’s enduring pay gap.

In Scotland, the rise appears to have been driven by men gaining work. But a similar increase has also occurred in the nation’s levels of in-work poverty, with 60 per cent of those in poverty also in employment, a figure that has continuously increased since 2011. Low wages, insecure contracts and unscrupulous practices have conspired in Scotland just as elsewhere to create a situation where social security may be more lucrative than employment, and where the person who sells you ingredients for your dinner may well be reliant on a food bank for their own.

Such blunt figures on employment clearly don’t tell us the whole, important, story about work in Scotland and the UK. But even by their own standards, they may not be entirely accurate. In October last year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released research suggesting the UK’s real unemployment figure may be around three million higher, with “hidden” unemployment – those who report themselves economically inactive for reasons such as health, caring or early retirement – rife across the country. The OECD’s assessment serves to show how the cold, hard statistics to which we attach so much weight can easily become just as subjective as political spin.

And while the uncomfortable reality of the UK’s employment landscape presents a compelling case for dropping our hero worship of black-and-white statistics, it’s only one example. Just as governments like that of Scotland and New Zealand have made the case for GDP being a blunt measure when it comes to quality of life, the oversimplified metrics we use to assess the likes of productivity, educational attainment and crime can preclude us from engaging with a range of different experiences and interpretations.

We will always need data; when done well and using the right metrics it can uncover, illuminate and emphasise a range of different aspects of our society. But we will also always need a critical eye with which to view it, and a genuine interest in the people and stories behind the numbers. Out of context, statistics are nothing more than pixels on a screen or ink on paper.

If we were to devote the same energy to improving the landscape of work across the UK as we do to celebrating largely meaningless statistics, many of these problems could be addressed. But it would require stronger legislation on insecure contracts and poverty wages, and the creation of high-quality, long-term and unionised jobs. It would require restoring the power that has been ripped from the trade union movement and rebalancing the relationships between workers and bosses. And it would mean paying less attention to inaccurate and oversimplified numbers and more to the harsh realities we might be more comfortable ignoring.