In his article on social issues this month Chris Durkin has highlighted the importance of employment. It not only brings in money, but it can provide the companionship of workmates, a structure to the day and something interesting to do. People who are out of work can feel worthless; they can lose the shape of their daily and weekly patterns of life; and they have less money to spendThere are the secondary risks of the effect on the physical and mental health of unemployed people, the impact on their social standing, the respect of their families and friends, and the danger of getting caught up in excessive drinking, drug-taking and offending, as ways to blot out unhappiness or compensate for the loss of wealth.
And there is not only the impact on those who are unemployed but on their families, affected by the loss of income or its secondary effects on the out of work breadwinner. And the impact on the young too, who are now feeling less optimistic than ever before about the possibility of getting employment, even after investing time in higher education.
The most obvious moral is that we need to create jobs. Both the last Labour government and the current Coalition have passed measures, for example to fund apprenticeships or payments to employers to create jobs. There are still huge numbers of young people who are unemployed, though, with dismal prospects for those leaving school in the coming years. It could be argued, therefore, that more radical measures are needed. The cost to the economy of benefits to the unemployed, treatment for alcoholics and drug users and imprisonment of offenders must surely be less than a system of job creation which gives a guaranteed job to everyone until they are twenty-five – by which time, they will have had the opportunity to develop a CV, to adopt a way of life structured by work and to avoid the worst spin-offs of unemployment.
The days of large-scale jobs that employed most of the workforce are now over. The mills, shipyards and pits are closed, and farming is not labour-intensive. The answer has to be on a smaller scale, as Chris Durkin suggested.
One of the points of the Big Society is to create stronger local communities. While there can be loyalty to a large employer, it is in the immediate group of colleagues that a worker gains their place, whatever the status of the job. It is in the platoon, or the office, or the workshop, that friendships are formed and people are valued for what they can contribute. It is at that level that the unemployed need to find a niche. It may, therefore, be in the small and medium-sized businesses that heavily subsidised jobs could have most impact and be of most use.
Unfortunately, employers often find that the school leavers who approach them for jobs are not ready for work. It may be that standards of literacy and numeracy are not high enough. It may be that the young adults have no real idea about how to present themselves to employers. It may be that they do not realise what work entails – the need to be reliable or punctual, the boring bits, the need to be part of a team, the need to deal with people courteously when they are really irritating. There are now schemes which are helping people – young people in particular – to face these hurdles and land jobs. There should be greater investment here.
If this makes sense, we need the government to take a bolder lead than they have to date. Certainly we face difficult economic times, but what sort of society do we want to emerge from the recession’s aftermath? One which values individuals, and helps them through hard times? Or one which leaves them to find their own feet or sink?
As far as we are concerned, we want young people to feel that they are valued and have something to contribute to the wider society through their work. They in turn need to give value for money, and to face up to the demands of employment. But it is for the government to create a structure which enables the wider market to create the jobs.
Otherwise, we risk having a generation without hope, and that is a heavy price to pay. It will be visible at times in the headline-hitting feral riots, but more generally it will show in the statistics of health problems, in depression, in earlier mortality. The price will be paid in more than cash. 2012 could be the time for the tide to turn.