Unemployed or Unemployable?

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Now we've returned back to the regular news cycles after the riots, we're being painted an increasingly bleak picture of the UK's economic prospects. Growth estimates are down, unemployment is up and no-one is sure what to do about it. Many of the economies of Europe are on the brink of collapse and a few have fallen apart completely. It seems the best we can hope for is to come out on the other side of this depression (whenever that may be) crippled but still just about walking. With the images of hooded thugs smashing our streets still fresh in the nation's mind there is a of political street cred to be had by sorting out the dole-monkeys leeching away all our precious taxes. But do our unemployed have any work to go into?

According to the latest figures there are 2.49 million unemployed people in the UK right now. Nearly a million of those are aged 16-24, a little over 20% of our young people. As economic growth continues to disappoint these numbers are likely to get bigger. The working people reading this might think, “So what? I'm okay, sucks to be you.” Well the unemployment rate is a measure of the people who've fallen off the bottom of the ladder and are drowning in the muck underneath. What the figure doesn't show is that the entire ladder itself is sinking into the quagmire while those at the top are kicking out the rungs as they climb. These problems affect us all, even if we can't change them an awful lot we should be making an attempt to understand them.

Here's a few scary statistics. The poorest 50% of the UK's relative wages have barely increased since the 1970's while the highest 1% of earners wages are well on their way to tripling. Of every £100 in the UK £12 goes to the poorest 50% but £14 to the richest 10%, and the richest 1% take £3. Of the 11 million people on or just below the national average wage (that's just below mind, not including the lowest earning bracket) 60% of them have trouble paying their bills, most have less than a months earnings in savings and don't pay into a pension scheme. Average earnings are expected to return to 2001 levels by 2015. And even in the relative boom years of 2003 to 2008 average disposable incomes fell despite growth of 11%. Take a second to read those back to yourself. So how was our living standard dropping even when the economy was growing?

If productivity goes up and employment goes down then it doesn't take a mathematician to tell you that we're working harder. A lot of people will tell you that we're just working “better” through technology but I don't see it. More people are taking their work home with them, staying that extra hour or two after their shift ends or taking a “working lunch” at their desk. As the recession kicked in the problems only got worse. All those redundancies, whose doing those jobs now? Most likely their former co-workers, and certainly without a pay rise for their extra work. How can you turn down your boss when he asks you to come in at weekends when job prospects elsewhere are so bleak? It's no surprise to me that my generation are generally considered emotionally stunted, amoral dolts when our parents haven't been given enough time to raise us properly and have to hand us over to the cheapest childcare in the world, television.

The recession has handed all the power over to the employer. When the economy is failing and you've got targets to meet you need to make up that shortfall somewhere. Without strong unions employers are increasingly able to pressure their staff into sacrificing their lives for the company. And this doesn't just apply to current staff. More and more people are expected to work unpaid just to have a chance at future employment, especially for the larger London firms. We all know that one poor soul who finishes at five and goes straight to their job as a bartender until 2am. They call it an apprenticeship, but historically an apprentice was given food and a place to stay, but who can afford that in these “tough economic times”? Give anyone too much power and its only a matter of time before they abuse it.

So back to the unemployed (full disclosure: that's me) Is there any work around? Well yes, but no. There are vacancies, but not enough to go around. Recently a cafe job on minimum wage for a measly 12 hours a week had over 150 applicants. Go into anywhere with a sign in the window and they'll often show you the pile of 30 or so applications they've had just that day. Anywhere you'd remotely like to work just isn't hiring, they tell you maybe next year. You cant ever talk to anyone, Cvs by email only. I've been on jobseekers for a month now and have never had anyone tell me my application is unsuccessful, you have to ring up, you ask if they have any feedback like you're supposed to and they tell you that they cant remember. Its a pretty depressing experience.

Luckily Iain Duncan Smith's Work Programme will sort me out. Essentially it puts jobseekers on a mandatory 30 hour a week scheme for a month to get us folk who are "culturally hostile to work and social order" into a job. But most people I've met in the job centre don't have a problem with motivation to work, just in finding any. It seems that placements are either to be community work, cleaning graffiti and such, which although nice will detract from their ability to actually find work, and no employer will be bowled over by a candidate who was forced to do it. I guess in another two years the Tories will need a few tidy parks to point at to persuade us that the “Big Society” wasn't a complete failure. Otherwise placements are with companies like Tesco or Poundland who I'm sure are happy to get some state sponsored labour just as the government will be happy to coax a bit of economic growth out of them. It is at least admirable in it's ingenuity in trying to fudge the stats. These companies have stated that having these placements wont affect their recruitment activity, but surely that would require people on placements to not do any work......

What worries me most about youth unemployment (and not just for my own sake) is what will come after it. If we can't get jobs now, then we'll have nothing to build upon in another 5 years, it'll stunt our career development and only make our lives harder when we start having kids of our own. A whole generation risks being completely shafted in ways the baby boomers couldn't have imagined. And as demonstrated a few weeks ago it makes people angry, and with little at stake in their society, things get damaged.

So things are grim ladies and gentlemen. You're either working yourself to the bone or not working at all and it all feels out of our control so we're blaming each other. The employed bemoan the lazy scroungers and the jobless rail at the pompous people who express such an opinion. Maybe everyone should be turning to those in charge, the government and the big businesses to look to the long term and sort out the structural problems that will keep us floundering in this mess for decades. Oh and we should all buy more to pull us out of the recession. Oops sorry I forgot that no-one has any money, or time to spend it in.

And here's a little extra reading:

Why the “squeezed middle” is here to stay. Gavin Kelly – The Observer

More bad news in the latest numbers. David Blanchflower – The NewStatesman

Does compulsory work experience cut long term unemployment? Joanne Christie - The Guardian

All work and no pay: The great speed-up. Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery – Mother Jones

Being volunteered to work for nothing: a new recipe for the likes of them. John Harris - The Guardian

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