Politicians, economists and economic reporters in the media are always talking about the peaks and troughs in our economy and the cycles of boom and bust. Each time the economic plans falter and unemployment rises, there is great worry about youth unemployment and a ‘lost generation’ who are never able to take the first steps on a career path because of the lack of jobs. But then politics move on and when the recovery begins, all the media comments are angled to promote optimism and confidence in the economy at last.
The politicians are keen to take the credit for sorting out the problems and setting the country on its feet again. But what happens to all those young people who couldn’t step onto the career ladder? No one mentions them again.
Many people will generally assume that when more jobs become available, this lost tribe will find something they can do to earn a living, even if it is not what they expected. This is what we’re supposed to think. Successive governments have also come up with their own ‘schemes’ to ‘help’ these people into work, and maybe a few are helped this way. But for many who have had experience of some of these initiatives, they are nothing but a farce, a way of manipulating the employment figures to make them look better than they really are and providing the participating businesses with a few months of free labour.
Every decade seems to bring some sort of recession and employment problems, for whatever reason, and it isn’t just school-leavers who are affected. Those who worked hard at school and gained the qualifications to go to University can also be caught up in a lost generation if they happen to be leaving education at the wrong time. Politicians and those who work in education often speak as though a qualification or degree is a passport to prosperity, but in the real world, even a degree is not enough any more. Vocational qualifications and experience are also needed to land a well-paid job. In many areas you also need your own car.
Unless a graduate has parents wealthy enough to provide them with a car and support them through two or three unpaid internships, they can still have little chance of landing a decent job. A graduate forced to sign on for Jobseekers Allowance at the end of their degree will probably have little chance of progressing. If they take an unpaid internship to gain relevant experience, their benefits are likely to be stopped as they are deemed to have made themselves ‘unavailable for work’ (i.e. unavailable for low-level work). Then what are they supposed to live on? Jobcentres are not set up to deal with graduates and their staff often don’t know what to do with claimants with higher qualifications.
Other groups caught up in these ‘lost generations’ scenarios are women returners and mature students. Taking a career break for any reason may be seen as risky these days, but more commonplace in the past when child care facilities and jobs tailored around working mothers were like gold. Mature students clearly have some initiative to work hard and better themselves, after perhaps being unable or prevented from gaining their qualifications earlier in their life. These groups are equally as much at a career crossroad as the school-leavers and graduates, but much less acknowledged.
All of these groups of people have the potential to be left behind when the economy moves on again and if they still haven’t found their niche by the time the economy dips again, their voices will be swamped by the new wave of unemployed, making it even harder for them to compete for the remaining jobs. Outside the major cities and the south-east this is likely to be even worse.
Both of the most recent governments have brought up, and complained about, the parts of the country where there are families of sometimes three generations where no one works. These seem to be mostly in the old industrial areas where the jobs wiped out by Margaret Thatcher’s policies in the 1980s have never been adequately replaced. Even where some new jobs have been created, there are in restricted numbers. There may also be public transport issues in these areas, so that it would be impossible to travel to where the new work has been set up. Predominantly though, it is the same ‘lost generation’ problem, where there are wholesale local redundancies from the area’s main source of employment shutting down. The principle is the same, though the workers may be of widely differing ages, they are still effectively a ‘lost generation’ who may, in this case, never find work again.
Taking all these strands into consideration, and the number of ‘downturns’ we have had in this country since the 1960s, (How many have there been? I’ve lost count.) perhaps it is more amazing that the successive governments are still surprised at the existence of clusters of long-term unemployed. Especially the Conservatives, who seem to have deliberate policies of wiping out the jobs of the less-well-off, whenever they are in power.
These are the people who become the hard-core at the centre of the unemployment figures – not necessarily through their own fault, but because they become trapped by the systems and economic problems caused by those at the top. They are then unable to find a way out of that trap when the economy starts to recover.
Arrogant politicians think they know all about the long-term unemployed when they know nothing, and deal with it by increasing the ‘stick’ and reducing the ‘carrot’ but this may only make things worse. It is possible to be too poor to get a job.
The government needs to stop dictating to the unemployed and blaming them for being unemployed. It needs to START LISTENING – REALLY LISTENING, to what the barriers to work really are, instead of deciding for themselves what they think those barriers are – they are NOT always to do with literacy, numeracy or ignorance. They may be different in different parts of the country, but unless these real problems are addressed, as opposed to the imagined, top-down versions, these poor, people trapped in a cycle of despair are never going to find the help they really need to climb out of the hole into which their lives have been pushed.
What do you think?