Who’s really exploiting the Jubilee ‘slaves’?
Getting young people to do voluntary work is far preferable to having them cosseted by
‘Unemployed bussed in to steward river pageant’, tub-thumped an outraged Guardian headline after last weekend’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Before long, the word ‘slavery’ was casually being tossed around.
The reality, however, was a little less dramatic. About 30 jobseekers and another 50 people on apprentice wages had travelled to London by coach from south-west England as part of the government’s Work Programme - a scheme which aims to get young people into employment through companies providing work experience. The participants had not, it seems, been dragooned together in tightly regimented chain gangs. Not that this stopped the handwringing: former deputy prime minister John Prescott is now demanding an ‘immediate inquiry’ after claims some volunteers had to sleep under London Bridge.
The grand denouncements of this exploitation and the miserable conditions of some work-experience schemes sound very radical and hard-hitting. But behind the righteous bluster, there lies a demand that young people must be protected from the adult world of work. The hoops we go through to get a job, including notching up work experience or doing low-paid work, are conceived here as being somehow damaging to an individual’s self-esteem. Of course, there was definitely a big problem with volunteers having to wait for hours in the cold, and the company responsible, Close Protection UK, has apologised for these organisational issues. But that should not be used to put young people off volunteering. For anyone interested in promoting freedom and meaningful social change, it should be clear that today’s shrill culture of diminishing expectations is harming both young people and the future development of society.
In many ways, the stewarding of the Jubilee river pageant had a strikingly familiar ring to it. Volunteering to do crowd control in the wind and rain, putting up tents in the mud - anyone would think the Glastonbury music festival was being held this year after all (especially given the bizarre BBC3-style coverage of the river pageant). Funnily enough, nobody accuses Glastonbury organiser Michael Eavis of exploiting the yoof or making them labour in horrendous conditions. Instead, youthful volunteering at Glastonbury is seen as a type of rite-of-passage experience that many young people go through over the summer – and so it should be.
Of course, for unemployed young people on work programmes, the situation is more serious and less of a summertime jaunt. Attempting to get off benefits and into employment is more important than being able to attend a music festival. And yet this is exactly why doing voluntary work and temporary low-paid jobs is useful. After all, most of us have gone down these routes to obtain better-paid and more rewarding work, including the ex-News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks, who started her career off as a secretary on the News of the World before becoming its editor.
Whatever you think of Brooks, she certainly showed – like other working-class media figures such as Chris Evans and Chris Moyles – the kind of grit and initiative to rise to the top. You do wonder whether it is such individual initiative – Brooks was recently described as ‘terrifyingly ambitious’ – which is actually the focus of all this radical scorn. There is always a suspicion that such ‘pull your boot straps up’ ambition has a nasty whiff of Thatcherite rugged individualism about it and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
In truth, historically, radical working-class movements and political parties were always built on the drive of such tough individuals. It seems peculiar that anyone would be wary of such important personal qualities as initiative, imagination, ambition and perseverance. To be so suspicious suggests a discomfort with a wider social ambition to create a better, more ambitious and imaginative society than we currently have.
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This is not to say that millions are unemployed because they’re all too lazy to get a job or that they should be scapegoated for the current recession. Nobody is crassly suggesting that there are millions of jobs out there or that there aren’t serious structural deficiencies to the UK’s economy. Nevertheless, the current discussion around unemployment ends up exacerbating retrograde trends that have a debilitating impact on young people. It reinforces existing therapeutic prejudices that young people cannot cope with doing mundane jobs or roughing it in bedsits as many generations have done previously. Instead, young people are seen as needing to be protected and cosseted by the state.
Radical campaigners calling for the restoration of the education maintenance allowance (EMA), or for the state to provide wages for voluntary work, rob young people of the drive and initiative to make something of themselves and make a real mark on society. As a consequence, this outlook will also have the effect of nurturing a corrosive, sulking immaturity, where young people simply refuse to take responsibility for their lives. Why else would one in three people aged between 18 and 30 still live at home with mum and dad?
In this sense, hostility towards state interference in young people’s lives is about stressing the importance of reckless, youthful freedom over battened-down security. Far from being an authoritarian and reactionary approach towards young people, an anti-state outlook encourages a ‘letting go’, so that young people can explore, experiment, be innovative and discover what they want to become. It means encouraging young people to move around the country, be unafraid of shared accommodation in rancid houses, and to attempt to have an impact on the world around them. In the past, low wages and poor accommodation did not stop young people recreating, rather than destroying, London, Manchester, Bristol or Glasgow in their own image (see When indie music was truly independent by Neil Davenport).
There are, of course, other social trends that are having a damaging impact on young people’s development. But the effective nationalisation of young people by the state is the most damaging and debilitating one. No matter how radicals like to dress it up – evoking images of exploitation, low pay and slavery, etc – they are effectively calling for the state to cushion young people even further. While welfare handouts may seem a more benign form of state intervention than smoking or free-speech bans, but they’re all designed to rein in our autonomy and decision-making. Far from voluntary work being a modern-day ball-and-chain scam, for youngsters beginning to fend for themselves such experiences could actually be liberating. The real slave advocates are those who want us all to be tightly bound to the state.
Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.