This article was first published in the September 2017 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

One of the most predictable stories about the UK economy is that it is a laggard in terms of productivity. According to the Office for National Statistics, UK productivity is no better this year than in 2007 – cue headlines about a ‘lost decade’.

But the UK employment rate (for 16 to 64-year-olds) has reached its highest, 74.9%, since comparable records began in 1971. Are some of these workers wasting their time or doing a poor job? The fact is, the productivity statistics are a poor reflection of both business success and what people actually experience.

Services, which add intangible value, are particularly hard to measure. We all want to see ‘high-quality’ audits, but if they cost more to carry out than a mediocre audit performed for the same price, are they less productive? How do you measure the intangible benefits to the company’s governance and to the public interest?

In her book GDP: a brief but affectionate history, the economist Diane Coyle describes the complex adjustments fed into this deceptively simple figure, the lags in capturing technological innovation and the gaps, such as voluntary work. Any improvement in the comprehensiveness of the measure – my favourite is Italy’s overnight addition of the black economy in 1987 – throws off course the comparative value of such benchmarks.

Coyle is a leading light at the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence (ESCoE), launched this year to examine the thorny issue of measuring the modern economy –
and perhaps to provide an antidote to simplistic views.

Apart from measurement issues, statistics that are poorly understood but easily bandied about tend to focus attention on the wrong things. Take the ‘dependency ratio’ of the number of people aged 65-plus for every 1,000 of working age. That number is forecast to rise by a fifth to 370 by 2039 – a scary number for those apparently being depended upon. But not all people of working age are in paid work, and 1.2 million aged over 65 are employed. Some 6.4 million pensioners pay income tax, and the estates of those who died in 2015-16 provided about £4.7m in inheritance tax. So how financially dependent are, or were, they?

In the context of the debate about inter-generational fairness, the word ‘dependency’ is read as ‘burden’. This fuels the growing assumption of unfairness and suggests the ratio may be roped in as political propaganda.

As you refocus on work after the summer break, I have three pleas: don’t take commonly quoted statistics at face value; ask what is not being measured; and consider the motives of those who are bandying the figures about.

Jane Fuller is a fellow of CFA UK and serves on the Audit and Assurance Council of the Financial Reporting Council