Wednesday, 11 November 2009

On worklessness....

I know of almost no-one who likes the term “worklessness”. Not only is the word clumsy but it conjures up an impression of being powerless, even incompetent, certainly unable to undertake that defining societal function – work.

Yet the term has crept into modern usage – not because it is a better word than “unemployment” but because – in the UK at least – that word has become almost useless are a means to describe those who are without work.

The official unemployment figure is currently (October 2009) 2.47 million – it’s highest level for some 15 years. That this many people are without a job is clearly a matter of considerable concern. But hold on…

…this “official figure” bears almost no resemblance to the numbers of people who are “of working age and not economically active.” And this is what the employment pundits mean by “worklessness” – everyone who is without work.

“The employment rate for people of working age was 72.6 per cent for the three months to August 2009.” (National Statistics Online)

That means that 27.4% of people in Britain of an age to work are not working – that is one-in-four folk not earning, not contributing to the economy, just consuming other people’s earnings. And remember the figures don’t include those in full time education – they are assumed to be unavailable for work (although there’s a load of part-time jobs swallowed up by our student population of course).

Some like the BBC’s Mark Easton don’t see part of this (“economically inactive – other”) as a problem – it’s stay-at-home mums isn’t it? Well yes but the largest proportion of those is single parents dependent on benefits (which is why the figure fell less in those Northern cities from 1991 to 2001).

I argued before that something changed in our society back in the 1970s and it might just have been our relationship with work – the break-up of traditional employers in the factories, mills and mines and the different relationship between the worker and the manager. But whatever it is, the change in male economic inactivity – in “worklessness” – since 1971 is enormous. And the significance of this change has been masked by a huge drop in the rate of female economic inactivity.

“Among men, the inactivity rate has grown from 4.9 per cent in 1971 to 16.3 per cent in 2008. In comparison, the female inactivity rate has declined from 40.6 per cent in 1971 to 25.8 per cent in 2008.” (Leaker, ONS)

As the generation who fell foul of the collapse of traditional industry in the 1970s and 1980s approach retirement there seems to be no let up in young men and women leaving school and doing nothing. As the OECD recently reported the 10.7% of UK school leavers “not in employment, education or training” was higher than in all but four of OECD member countries (Turkey, Israel, Spain & Brazil) – and four times the rate in France.

The term “worklessness” – the need for it to be invented – reflects the abject failure of our policy-makers, political leaders and pundits to see how not working is a problem. Not something that can be managed by raising taxes to pay more people, more benefits. Not something that will be solved simply by the rising of the economic tide. And not something that we can’t see because it’s “somebody else’s problem”.

This lack of work contributes to crime, to ill-health, to mental illness, to drunkenness…but worse it represents the desertion of so many people, condemning them to a redundant life sustained only by the drip feed of benefits. If we want those sunlit uplands we have to focus on the challenge of “worklessness” – on making that word redundant not the poor folk it describes.

1 comment:

Bob said...

Not earning does not equal "not contributing to the economy, just consuming other people’s earnings".

I am on incapacity benefit for mental illness. I contribute to the economy when I spend money on my daily needs. I support local services, farmers, and shopkeepers. I pay VAT. I also do a certain amount of voluntary work, which does not directly contribute to the economy but imagine what it would cost to pay people to do all the work done by voluntary workers in the UK. (Besides which, shouldn't these contributions be valued quite apart from their effect on the economy?)

Certainly changes need to be made. Many employers will not offer jobs to people who have gaps in their history of paid employment, which naturally causes a problem for anyone who's been off work on benefits. There is a great deal of prejudice and stigma about mental illness and other disabilities to contend with, too.

Unfortunately further stigmatizing of people on benefits as spongers and leeches only increases the stress and distress they feel, further contributing to ill health, mental and otherwise.