Saturday, 26 November 2011

broken record

Disagreement up on Mount Olympus. The £1bn found behind the sofa cushions to subsidise employers who recruit young people does kind of put the lie to the position hitherto occupied by the Coalition: that 'the jobs are out there' and the fault's with the unemployed. In fact this means that the government are taking a more nuanced position than the notoriously biased taxpayer-hating BBC, whose recent interventions on the subject of unemployment were enough to make you nostalgic for the days when the issue was a media blind spot.

First there was John Humphrys, given an hour-long programme to explain his Parsonsian theory about the decline of the Decent Working Class. He began by telling us that, in his youth, there had only been one deadbeat dad in Splott, and that he'd been looked down on by the entire neighbourhood (a stark contrast with the modern era, when those on benefits are venerated as national heroes.) In his spirited campaign to revive working-class shame, Humphrys did briefly entertain the radical idea that the unemployment figures there (as high as 24%) might be due to the state of the job market, but such outlandish notions were put to rest by a visit to the local jobcentre, where he found 'friendly staff' and '1,600 jobs'. At this point he went back to collecting anecdotes from curtain-twitchers, while viewers struggled to digest the inferred conclusion that Cardiff (plus the surrounding areas) has a population of just over 6,400. Patient examination here, if you're inclined.

Next, safely ringfenced away on BBC3, a panel discussion-cum-reality show called 'Up For Hire', which put four young jobseekers through a variety of employment-rated challenges while discussing the issues around the subject with guests and a live audience. The show's remit was very limited. It illustrated perfectly how insubstantial the discussion of unemployment becomes when anything political is pre-emptively taken off the agenda. So we talked about things like how young people might need to adopt more creative jobhunting strategies, like walking around town with a sandwich board, without stopping to consider why this was being reported as a quirky That's Life! human interest story rather than a sombre indictment of our entire economic and political system. The show boiled down to the same hilariously point-missing question posed over and over again: 'there are 2.5m unemployed - what are they all doing wrong?'

The programme's studio guests - mostly celebrities and business owners - weren't short of suggestions on this.* Footage of one of the contestants overreacting to some negative feedback in a challenge was spun into a ten-minute collective philippic on how thin-skinned and coddled young people were today, and how they all needed to toughen up, face reality, and so forth. From laziness to scruffy appearance to lack of imagination, everyone wanted to pitch in with their incredible one-shot diagnosis of youth unemployment (based of course solely on their small sack of personal anecdotes - cf Kaplan, 'someone who has actually been there'). One point everyone agreed on is that 'graduates shouldn't expect to walk into a job' - a neat piece of ideological sleight of hand, that, evoking as it does arrogance, entitlement, whereas in fact (for graduates and non-graduates alike) it's surely not so unreasonable to expect to have some decent chance of finding work.

As it happened, the young people (contestants and audience members) all seemed rather bright, articulate and well-adjusted, with no particuar illusions about their prospects. At one point (with the discussion focussing on preciousness, and how young people were unwilling to get their hands dirty in 'real' jobs), the visiting celebrities regaled us with tales of they'd all worked briefly in low pay/service sector jobs before striking it rich, and the panel all reached the consensus that kids should take any job they can and work their way up to something better. A sharp malcontent in the audience leaned forward and asked 'but how long are you supposed to stay in that job if nothing better comes along?' The panel stuttered along the lines of 'well, er, forever' before the host quickly moved the discussion on. A simple realistic counter-factual question was enough to derail the magical voluntarist received wisdom.

If the young people acquitted themselves well, the same couldn't always be said of the guests, whose purported expertise and insight looked distinctly tired and threadbare. Worst of all was Katie from 'The Apprentice', who boomed out unpopular populist talking points ('media studies is a waste of time... if you went to a polytechnic, blow yourself up') like a drunken relative at Christmas dinner, while the audience cringed and shuffled their feet. That particular line of argument - that the problem is airy-fairy education which should be tailored to be more directly relevant to employers - is another one that's gaining traction. We can only dream of a world in where the reverse was true.

What's increasingly clear is that magical voluntarism is the only game in town. The ever-windy CBI's best idea on the economy is to strip away employee protection - or, as the only slightly insane Evening Standard poll had it, 'should it be made easier for firms to sack people to help tackle joblessness?' Of course, if employers want to take on conveniently disposable staff without employment protection, they could just hire agency temps, but never mind. Everyone enjoys a race to the bottom.

The Institute of Economic Affairs, meanwhile, suggest 'suspending' the minimum wage; in fact, between apprenticeships (£2.60ph, impossible for anyone not living with very tolerant parents, with no guarantees at the end), the ever-more-compulsory internships, and the looming encroachment of workfare, everything we do seems to be based on the possibility of getting everyone doing a day's work for considerably less than a day's pay. The Citizens UK Living Wage campaign itself, which seemed to be making some tentative progress into the mainstream, has disappeared into the long grass.

The government staunchly deny the existence of the working poor; confronted with the statistics, they preach that the solution is to 'make work pay', something achieved not (as a foolish man might assume) by increasing wages, but by capping benefits. The vultures are circling around tax credits. Household incomes are falling for most, while managerial and boardroom posts remain untroubled by austerity. The Tories, who are imposing their policies on the basis that we must tackle our deficit, have admitted that they may not be able to reduce the deficit after all.

If you see anyone out on the streets, mind, they're just protesting for protest's sake. Back to you, Dermot.

*A fine example of the species is the role model Philip Green, who decided to share his pearls of wisdom on youth unemployment on the same day that he threw a few hundred young people on the dole. Unfair to blame him personally, perhaps. But it follows that if we praise these men for 'creating' jobs in more favourable times (as if employing someone was ever a selfless act), we can also blame them for 'destroying' those jobs later on.

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