Maybe the jobless should get on their bikes

No self-respecting working-class youth should choose the dole, live with mum and dad and while away his free time.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

The impact of youth unemployment seems to animate many a liberal commentator. Barely a week goes by without a broadsheet article or a Radio 4 report on how young people are struggling with life on the dole. There is also a broad consensus that youth unemployment was a key catalyst for the riots and looting in England last August.

With an estimated 1.2million 16- to 24-year-olds out of work in Britain, it is absolutely right that this social problem is discussed and addressed. But compared to previous bouts of mass youth unemployment, the conclusions drawn from the current situation are not exactly ones to write home about. Because the biggest concern seems to be that unemployment affects young people’s self-esteem.

The reliably astute Noel Gallagher recently pointed out that, today, the main focus is on how young people are ‘coping’ with unemployment rather than on how they can be helped to find gainful work. The former Oasis frontman’s assessment was borne out by a recent Radio 4 report which, featuring an unemployed young man, dwelt on his self-esteem and confidence issues. The more tangible, debilitating aspect of unemployment – a shortage of readily available cash – was hardly touched upon. Exploring the psychological rather than the material impacts of joblessness was the main concern here.

The consequence of such therapeutic drivel is that unemployment comes to be seen as a straitjacket which limits any sense of agency or initiative.

What was striking about the young interviewee, who had been unemployed for three years, was that he seemed rooted to the family home. By contrast, in the early 1980s, another period of mass youth unemployment, it was commonplace for Liverpudlians or Glaswegians to try to find work in London or abroad. The then Conservative employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, famously told the unemployed: ‘Get on your bike and look for work.’ It was a highly controversial and despised comment as it effectively blamed the unemployed for the collapse of British capitalism. But another criticism was that Tebbit’s speech was both patronising and false. Hundreds of thousands of working-class people were already ‘on their bikes’ looking for jobs. One third of Liverpool’s population had moved down south.

A key feature of capitalism has always been the creation of a geographically mobile workforce, available to move in and out of areas according to the fluctuations of industrial production. This is hardly an ideal situation, and workers have always fought for stable working conditions. At the same time, though, it shows how, historically, ordinary people have taken whatever opportunities they could find to get by and to improve their lot. If you stay at home with mum and dad in a rundown area, opportunity is unlikely to come knocking on your door.

Unfortunately, dreams of escaping such limitations, as thrillingly encapsulated in Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, no longer feature strongly in working-class life. Over the past 20 years, geographical immobility has become the norm, with a bunkered-down, stick-with-who-you-know outlook prevailing. This has less to do with being too skint to find the train fare than with the influence of therapeutic thinking, lowered horizons and a cultivated sense of vulnerability.

Yet, on the left, pointing out such negative changes among working-class communities is seen as an outrageous, Thatcherite proposition suggesting that the poor are too feckless and lazy to work.

Of course, mass unemployment – the inability to incorporate millions of adults into some sort of economic life – is caused by the structural weaknesses of British capitalism. Indeed, since the 2008 financial crisis hundreds of thousands of workers have been made redundant. The free market’s structural weaknesses, its barrier to raising the forces of production, have had a detrimental impact on working people’s lives once again. These features of economic recession and insecurity are not in doubt; they are as old as capitalism itself. But there is something new going on in British society, too.

Recent data indicates that, among a significant section of society, welfarism has become the be-all and end-all. Figures from September 2011 showed that 18.8 per cent of UK households have no adults of working age in paid employment. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics also reveal that employment among working-age people rose by 181,000 in the Lib-Con coalition’s first year in power. Yet only about eight per cent of those who found work were British nationals.

Such dry statistics have been leapt on by the anti-immigration lobby as proof that foreigners really are taking British jobs from British workers. But there is no evidence that there’s a discrimination bar against British workers, so it does appear that many UK nationals are less inclined to take up paid employment than overseas workers. Defenders of extended welfarism, however, simply say ‘why should anyone take up work that pays little more than benefits anyway?’ Such comments only belie, and encourage, a mood of fatalism and hemmed-in horizons. It suggests that the only two options available to people are either to accept low pay or accept poverty-level benefits. Individuals’ capacity to go beyond those options rarely comes into play. It is the sanctioning of low horizons that informs the current unemployment debate, usually with the conclusion that more welfarism, and more therapeutic help by professionals, is the best course of action.

This kind of approach was once anathema to working-class communities. After the Second World War, a strong suspicion of the state meant that there was deep shame in being seen to be reliant on welfare. Paid employment, no matter how low the wages, was always the preferred option. Being part of working society was always considered more adult and responsible than being stuck at home. Rather than this being seen as a conformist acceptance of Tory values, individual self-reliance went hand-in-hand with working-class political independence, too.

In the Eighties and Nineties, young people’s response to mass unemployment was also considerably different from today. Although the term ‘dole culture’ started to enter the vocabulary, the acres of free time were used productively. Many a doley twentysomething developed themselves as musicians, songwriters, journalists, authors, graphic designers, club promoters and fashion stylists. No one had any illusions about self-employment being a replacement for secure, paid work and radical politics often went hand in hand with pragmatic self-employment. But it signalled a refusal to be fatalistic and a desire to make a mark on the world. Many of the leading musicians, artists, writers and comedians who dominated back then had once served their apprenticeship as dole-queue creatives. The problem with therapeutic welfarism over the past 15 years is that it has snuffed out this very ordinary desire to be brilliant and extraordinary.

The current discussions on unemployment offer only a patronising head pat to unemployed youth. But encouraging fatalism and self-pity does the unemployed no favours.

Neil Davenport is a politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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