Pedestrians read recruitment announcements in central London

"It's too soon to adopt a wait-and-see-policy?" asks the American comedian Larry Miller. "That's quite a science you've got there, isn't it?"

Jokes about economists are thin on the ground, but the dismal science probably deserves a good bit of stick for its ability to add apples and oranges and come up with beef stew.

This week's employment data from the Office for National Statistics is the latest in a long line of labour market head-scratchers that continue befuddle the men and women who chart this stuff for a living.

Employment reached an all-time high of 29.59 million for the three months ending in August, while the headline unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent and youth unemployment dipped under 1 million for the first time in a year.

However, we know that output per hour in Britain lagged our G-7 rivals by around 15 percent last year, according to ONS figures, and has fallen the most since the crisis than in every other developed economy apart from Italy.

So, we're working longer hours (13.6 million more than last year), but getting paid less (wages grew 1.7 percent but lagged inflation by neary half). More of us are working (nearly 30 million), but we're told we're less productive (the second worst in Europe). Employment's at an all-time high (well, since records began in 1971), but the economy remains double-dipped in the mud and will be lucky to grow at all between now and the end of the year (says everyone apart from the government).

Something doesn't make sense.

If I was writing a stand-up routine (don't laugh!) I'd say we're either really lazy or we can't count.

More seriously, the figures suggest Britain's workforce is troublingly inefficient and not contributing enough to output or the traditional measures of GDP growth are simply not fit for a modern economy.

The dismal scientists are calling it the "productivity puzzle" and it seems to have spawned a host of theories.

Labour hoarding is one of them. The thinking is that companies are hanging onto staff in anticipation of an economic turnaround and would rather do this than go through the slow, expensive process of redundancies and re-hiring.

The increase in part-time staff in the private sector would seem to give this notion a bit of weight, given that companies might simply decide to extend the part-time hours of full time workers once the economy kicks-back into gear. Since the pre-crisis peak, part-time jobs in the private sector have risen by a net 724,000, nearly double the pace of growth for full-time positions.

More of us are working for ourselves, as well, and that can skew standard calculations of productivity. Self-employed figures from the ONS rose by 35,000 in the three months ending in August to just over 4.2 million - that's a hefty 14 percent of the overall workforce.

Another theory links the figures to the country's well-documented woes in the financial sector. Firms might have decided that, given the difficulty in getting new bank loans for capital investment (such as modernizing equipment or computers) which are more efficient, they'd sooner investment in "cheap" labour that keeps the business ticking over, but doesn't boost overall productivity or output.

And let's not forget, it's a buyers' market for a lot of consumer goods and savvy shoppers (already focused on paying down credit cards) can find cheaper prices and better deals with a simple click of the mouse.

Once you strip away food, energy and petrol prices, you'll be hard pressed to find rising prices in virtually any other portion of the economy. Falling prices means companies are working harder to generate similar levels of revenue. It might look bad on the charts, but it's an unavoidable fact of life.

Of course, we might just be getting our sums wrong.

At the end of the day it's a lot easier (well, somewhat easier) to calculate a binary statistic such as employment than it is to measure the myriad moving parts in a £1.1 trillion economy.

If so, then job growth points to much stronger "underlying" GDP than is currently being reported, even as the second quarter figure was revised from an initial estimate of -0.7 percent to the final -0.4 percent.

The Office for Budget Responsibility noted this earlier in the week in its second bi-annual assessment of economic growth and government spending.

Comparing the current recession to the steep decline in output of the early 1980s, the OBR noted something interesting.

While both recessions began with unemployment rates of 5.4 percent, the recession of the 80s saw that figure rise to 11.5 percent even as GDP grew *past* the previous peak by a full 1.2 percent.

In the current double-dip, we're still around 4.1 percent shy the last peak in output - but unemployment topped-out at 8.4 percent and has been falling steadily ever since.

"If we had known how weak the recovery was likely to be in June 2010 then we would probably have forecast that unemployment today would be 1.6 million higher today than current data suggest," the OBR said in its report.

Okay, but if the corollary is true and the labour market is clearly stronger than expected, doesn't that mean the economy should be performing better?

And if so, what does that mean for the Bank of England and its record low interest rates and controversial programme of quantitative easing?

You won't feel better when you read what they said at their last meeting.

"It was unlikely that any one factor could explain all of the remaining productivity shortfall. Indeed different factors had probably been in play at different times. Overall, there were many factors that could help explain the weakness of productivity growth.

The key questions facing the Committee were how persistent that weakness would be and the extent to which productivity would pick up as demand recovered, such that the economy could grow without generating inflationary pressure."

In other words, they have no idea, either.

That's quite a science you've got there, isn't it?