The young are too entitled not enslaved
Following Cait Reilly’s legal triumph, it seems some believe the young should be protected from work.
So, thanks to a ruling at the Court of Appeal in London yesterday, unemployed graduate Cait Reilly has succeeded in legally challenging the UK government over its work-for-benefits scheme.
In July last year, Reilly took the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to court on the basis that working for Poundland for a few weeks was tantamount to ‘slavery’ and therefore contravened her ‘human rights’. Reilly’s case was rightly dismissed by the judge at the time who declared that ‘such a scheme is a very long way removed from the colonial exploitation of labour’. Quite right. Comparing working in Poundland to labouring on sugar plantations takes historical ignorance to spectacularly insulting levels.
Yet on Tuesday, the judge’s original verdict was overturned. A three-judge panel at the Royal Courts of Justice ruled that the secretary of state for work and pensions had acted unlawfully by not telling the unemployed enough about the penalties they faced and their right to appeal against being made to take unpaid work. On these narrow grounds, it was deemed unlawful to be required to work for benefits. The government has already amended the legal regulations to meet the court’s objections and has also announced it will appeal.
Nonetheless, the case is still seen as a major coup. Joanna Long, a member of campaigning group Boycott Workfare, captured the mood of Reilly’s supporters: ‘Today’s ruling is a victory for the people against a government which thought it could compel unemployed and sick people to work without pay, backed by a vicious regime of sanctions which made the poorest far poorer.’ Really? Only in this victim-centred age could doing a few shifts at Poundland be seriously compared to forced slavery.
What the ruling in favour of Reilly is not, however, is a victory for ‘the people’. Rather, it is a triumph for our culture of self-pity, narcissism and whining entitlement. The new ruling will further cushion and cosset young people, relieving them of any impositions or pressures. And it will bolster the infantile notion that young people must be protected from the demands of becoming economically independent or hard working. In the long run, this will do the development of young people far more damage than a few weeks working for benefits.
Originally, Reilly was claiming jobseeker’s allowance while volunteering at a pen museum in the hope of being offered a permanent position. So in this sense, she was not averse to doing something useful for society while receiving money from the public purse. This, effectively, is what the government’s work scheme is partly about. The original conception of the welfare state was, like an insurance policy, taking out during lean times what you put in during more affluent periods.
Today, the welfare state is seen as something very different. Welfare is now promoted and viewed as something people are automatically entitled to, whether you have contributed to that income or not. Not only did Reilly believe she was entitled to income that she hadn’t contributed to, but that she ought to be working in a museum. It wasn’t based on qualifications, criteria or availability of such work, but that she somehow automatically deserved it. This was a bit like those kids who trashed Comet during the riots because they were unsuccessful at obtaining a job there – they also felt they ought to be working there regardless of experience, ability or suitability.
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In this sense, today’s ruling will bolster the idea held by some young people that the world really does owe them a living. The Reilly ruling seems to acknowledge officially that young people should not be expected to meet society’s requirement to work in case it damages their vulnerable self-esteem. It suggests that self-pity and a sense of entitlement is now far more laudable than simply overcoming life’s challenges or learning how to grow up.
Nevertheless, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the court came to such a decision. For the past two decades, the state has been keen to show that adult autonomy is not something people should exercise too much. So while the ruling looks like a victory for people power-style leftism against a (mainly) Tory government, in truth it is a demand for the state to look after us. It is an acknowledgement that we should forgo individual sovereignty for a close relationship with the all-watching, all-checking and autonomy sapping state. Whereas genuine radicalism was always a demand for autonomy from state regulators, today’s radicals aspire to be more tightly bound to state institutions. Any excuse to bolster state legitimacy and authority over us, even at the expense of a Tory government, will always appeal to elite-minded, undemocratic judges. Reilly and her supporters demand to be treated like children. Is it any wonder that a paternalistic state will oblige?
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
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Joe Kaplinsky, 14 February 2013 13:57
Neil says that ‘doing something useful for society… effectively, is what the government’s work scheme is partly about.’ Partly, perhaps. But Employment minister Mark Hoban justifies it as ‘personalised, tailored support’ from the State, which may be even worse than straight welfare. This ‘help’ is the opposite of independence. It also removes the relationship between work and an independent wage. These are not real jobs in the sense of having some permanence around which you can begin to build a life.
We shouldn’t use it as an excuse to be soft on people happy living off welfare, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to wait for politicians or capitalists to solve their problems. But Ian Duncan Smith deserves equal ridicule for claiming ‘our back to work schemes are successful’. They are not - whether addressing the cultural or the economic crisis. (Neil’s claim that young people lack the experience and ability to work in Comet seems like too much of a concession to the government here.)
Also, I’m not sure that a ‘sense of entitlement’ is the most important criticism of today’s youth. Middle class and the rich young people have a greater, and more unquestioned, sense of entitlement. The 1% didn’t create all the wealth they enjoy. They are entitled to it through their property rights. But if you want to go down that path you might as well join Occupy and start lobbying for austerity.
I think a bigger problem is lack of ambition, that people can be satisfied subsisting on a minimal income. The celebration of welfare surely contributes to this. But welfare is filling a vacuum created by the collapse of the communities and morality that in the past socialized young people. Recreating aspiration and responsibility is a positive task. It won’t magically happen just through the negative act of removing the crutch of welfare.
Marnie1591, 16 February 2013 11:54
It’s not only the young who object to being hired out to private companies.
It seems to me that the problem with the government’s workfare scheme is that it applies facile solutions and an one-size-fits-all approach to individuals who have to navigate an extremely complex labour market. Miss Reilly had been working in a museum, albeit unpaid, when she was forced to start work at Poundland. Was Miss Reilly supposed to gain work experience, i.e. an experience of what going to work is like? Or was she supposed to learn that the taxpayer expects her to lower her expectations?
If the latter, then let’s debate about the needs of society (or the market) versus those of the individual and not merely complain about ‘our culture of self-pity, narcissism and whining entitlement’. Let’s debate what is meant by ‘individual sovereignty’ and how to square the concept of ‘autonomy’ with people who, because they are economically at the bottom of society and are likely to stay there, have very little control over where their life will be going? Let’s be explicit about what ‘learning how to grow up’ entails.
And what’s wrong with Poundland liaising with the Jobcentre to identify long-term unemployed youngsters and properly hiring them for six months on an appropriate wage? I really don’t see what is character building in making someone feel exploited. Still plenty of pressure on the individual but also reward in the form of money in one’s pocket. Money above the level of subsistence, that is. Such extra funds can mean a lot of things, even being able to meet one’s co-workers in the pub after work. Because being at work and working is also about socialising and—for young people—even learning to socialise and to join broader society.