Yesterday I attended an event titled Have We Become Acclimatised to Greater Inequality?, an all-day workshop at the National Science Learning Centre at the University of York (programme). The previous event in this same series focused primarily on health inequality — this event extended the scope of the discussion to take a look at inequality more generally, including economic and social inequality.
Policy Ignorance and the Low-Pay, No-Pay Cycle
The first session in the morning was split into two workshops — I attended the workshop run by Robert MacDonald, a fellow Teesside University academic. Robert’s work focuses on youth unemployment and social exclusion in the Tees Valley area of the UK, an area frequently ranked amongst the most deprived in Britain. As Robert pointed out, however, as recently as the 1970s the Tees Valley was one of the most economically vibrant parts of the country. So what happened to cause this drastic decline in the area’s fortunes?
The government would have you believe that the deprivation and unemployment in the region is a consequence of a ‘culture of worklessness’ — a pathological lack of ambition, a disdain for hard work derived from families that supposedly lead a life of leisure, sitting around the house while claiming government benefits and refusing to work on gaining new skills to increase their employability. Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron, and others have made this argument, setting up an alleged conflict between ‘shirkers’ and ‘strivers’ — those who want ‘to get on’, versus those who prefer a life on benefits.
This is the government orthodoxy regarding unemployment, and has led to a policy programme which focuses on ‘up-skilling’ the workforce, increasing benefit conditionality (making it harder to claim benefits), and increasing the number of highly-skilled jobs while reducing the lower-skilled, lower-paid jobs. Robert confidently called this ‘Voodoo Sociology’, and set out to explain why such a programme ignores the real reasons behind the deprivation and unemployment evident in areas like the Tees Valley.
Youth in the Tees Valley — Underambitious or Underemployed?
Robert and his colleagues have followed youth in the Tees Valley in a series of studies since 1998, called the Teesside Studies of Youth Transitions and Social Exclusion. These studies found that, in contrast to the rhetoric of central government, the youth in the area have a constant engagement with the labour market — there is no such thing as a ‘culture of worklessness’. Long-term, post-school transitions for Tees Valley youth are characterised by short-term, insecure jobs that are non-progressive — they don’t lead to further opportunities, promotion, etc.
So we do not see the kind of idle underclass proposed by the government, but instead a constant ‘churning’ of young people through the lowest end of the labour market. Young people are continuously attempting to enter the labour market, only to be dumped after a few weeks or months and forced to claim Job-Seeker’s Allowance once again. The DWP’s own studies confirm that of the 340,000 young people aged 22-24 who claimed JSA in 2010-11, 73% had claimed JSA at least once before. Robert referred to this precarious labour market position as economic marginality — young people in the Tees Valley are perpetually stuck on the fringes of the labour market, with no clear path to regular employment or job security.
The Perils of Voodoo Sociology
Having set out these points, Robert returned to the government’s ‘Voodoo Sociology’. The government policy goals around vastly increasing the supply of skilled workers, fuelled by a significant expansion of the higher education sector, has been done largely in isolation: there has been no corresponding increase in demand from employers for highly-skilled workers. The trend we see of late is an increase in ‘lousy jobs’ — low-paid, low- or no-skilled, and insecure — and ‘lovely jobs’ — very highly-paid, highly skilled, and secure. The middle ground has been ‘hollowed out’, leaving a significant percentage of university graduates with nowhere to go. In areas like the Tees Valley this endemic underemployment is a serious issue, leaving some 34% of graduates in non-graduate-level jobs, even 5+ years after graduation. Plus, thanks to recent government policy, these same graduates will soon be saddled with enormous educational debt as well.
Robert also spoke briefly about Prof Ken Roberts — a well-known academic in this area and author of several books on the topic, such as Youth in Transition: Eastern Europe and the West. His work has confirmed across 25 countries that youth suffer no shortage of ambition, even in the most deprived areas. In fact, youth repeatedly and doggedly attempt to engage in productive work, but the severe shortage of secure, progressive jobs for young people makes this a struggle. Youth are seeking out the opportunities that are available to them — but the structure of these opportunities themselves are not conducive to getting young people out of poverty.
The Government’s Approach
Given all of this hard data, what response have we seen from the government? Well, aside from a partial U-turn on tax credit cuts, an anaemic Living Wage policy, and some lip-service given to ‘making work pay’, not an awful lot. We don’t see any concerted effort toward reducing the number of bad jobs out there, or restructuring the poor opportunities available to younger people. Nor have we seen any support forthcoming for short-term underemployed people, or recurrently underemployed/unemployed youth.
Instead we have institutions like the Work Programme from the DWP, which with a success rate of 8% is actually worse than doing nothing at all (more than 8% of people find jobs by themselves, without taking assistance from the Work Programme). Apprenticeship schemes only accept one of every 28 applicants, making them a very unlikely means of finding a new trade. Here in the Tees Valley, a new project costing £30 million (funded by the EU, as are many things around here — take note, UKIP) is aiming to address ‘social exclusion’ by making young people ‘more work ready’ and ‘raising their aspirations’. So we see the exact same rhetoric — young people are to blame, their aspirations are too low, too many of them are long-term ‘NEET’ (not in employment, education or training). When we look at the figures, less than 50 people in the entire region could be classed as actually long-term NEET — the overwhelming majority are constantly attempting to engage with a labour market that seemingly wants nothing to do with them.
So, having established that government policy on this issue is getting things disastrously wrong, and that young people are not in fact to blame for their own misfortune, why does the government persist in this approach? Robert suggests that this ideology of the ‘undeserving unemployed’ provides an easy platform for the government to justify cuts to the welfare budget and sweeping austerity programmes. Rolling out welfare-to-work programmes like the Work Programme is much easier than actually restructuring the labour market to create proper opportunities for youth — and large companies love these programmes, as they often end up getting free short-term labour out of it with no particular commitment to taking anyone on. With that in mind Robert left us with a question at the end of his slides: as a society we speak often about young people’s aspirations and their supposed lack of same, but what about our aspirations? Do we aspire to create a society in which our youth can find productive, secure employment, and if so, why aren’t we properly doing anything about it?
I very much enjoyed Robert’s presentation. I found it revealing and very important — I just wish central government would give this kind of work the attention and respect it deserves. I hope that I might be able to contribute to this kind of work sometime in the future, perhaps by developing simulations as testing grounds for testing the effects of relevant labour market reforms.
I was hoping to summarise the whole day in this post, but this has gone on long enough already — I’ll save the rest for another post. I’ll spoil it for you now though and say I did enjoy the rest of the day as well.
Although, if I may offer some feedback for the organisers: as someone with a physical health problem which prohibits me from standing for long periods without extreme discomfort, please don’t hold lunch/networking sessions without any seating. While everyone else was networking and chatting amiably, I ended up sitting in another room by myself, and that wasn’t overly pleasant.