I’ve blogged on the worker/shirker, striver/skiver issue before but now I’ll flesh out why this makes me so damned angry. It’s not my own redundancy that makes me really angry. I know all too well what unemployment feels like because in 1994 I fell in love with someone who was unemployed when we met and remained so for the first 15 months of our relationship. Doing the math? He was 21 when we met. He’d left school at 16 and gone to work in auto manufacturing. He learned a skill and thought he was safe. Then he was laid off. He was a pretty smart guy and a genuinely lovely person but he quite literally didn’t make the grade. He wanted to work so badly but the work just wasn’t there for him. I always thought the single biggest factor in the length of time he was unemployed wasn’t his desire to work or his ability to work. It wasn’t the economy or the state of industry, although that caused him to lose his first job. It was the fact that nobody at his school ever made it clear enough that you need GSCE grades regardless of what you think you’ll do when you leave school. My God, he paid for the times he hadn’t taken school seriously. He couldn’t compete on paper on that one point.
George Osborne and the rest of them have no idea what strength it takes to get knocked back over and over and over again and still get back up and keep applying. If they did, they wouldn’t use such pernicious labels. It was hard enough as it was. I honestly don’t want to try to imagine what it would have done to him to see shrieking headlines we have today, calling him lazy and workshy, during that time. As it was, he was unemployed at a time when the Tories were on another restructuring of benefits, which ultimately led to the introduction of JSA.
He didn’t sit back and wait for the Job Centre to find something. He never stopped actively trying to get a job. Eventually, he got a break: a temporary job in the run up to Christmas. Even though it was only a very short contract he attacked it (nb businesses who participate in Workfare: he chose to accept a temporary job in the days before both JSA and the minimum wage). He wanted to work. He was motivated to do a good job, not by the prospect of sanctions (by the way, he only ever got the dole – nothing else), not because there was a promise of any work at the end of the contract but because he was happy and proud to be in work at all, even temporary work. His dedication paid off. He was offered a permanent job. That led to a new one elsewhere, which led to another.
He’s 40 now and he’s had a job ever since. He’s the person I think of when politicians label unemployed people. I knew him at least as well as anyone else on earth did when he was unemployed and he was a striver. The length of time he was out of work didn’t change that.
That was the 1990s. A couple of years ago, I met a man whose grandson studied law at the same university as me. He asked if I’d known him. I asked what year he graduated. His answer was pretty damned flattering: ten years after me, in 2008. His grandson had ended up working for the same company which gave my ex his break over ten years earlier. He didn’t expect to ever practice law. I sympathised with his situation. Afterwards, I thought about my ex. Would someone in his shoes in 2008 have got the break which has kept him in work ever since? Chances are the answer to that question is no. He’d still be the same person, eager to work once he’d put the classroom behind him but, where in the 1990s unemployment was a common problem for skilled workers without higher education, everyone’s at risk now, especially among young people.
There would also be another new threat to his job prospects today. His break was a temporary job. That was back when university grants actually meant something and before tuition fees. Now, I suspect he’d be going up against current students for the same job. A student’s chances of getting that job would’ve been better. When it came to part time jobs to stretch a grant and temporary jobs in the holidays, I never met a student who couldn’t find someone willing to hire them. Not many people I knew took part time jobs during term time at my university (which is reflective of the socioeconomic backgrounds of the people I knew) but most of us worked in the summers and more than a few picked up shifts at Christmas. I’d imagine there would’ve been more people working at the new university too. Where would my ex be today if tuition fees had been around back then?
Would my ex have suffered in the application process itself as a result of the labels placed on him as an unemployed person? The Government and the media have spent three solid years putting forward the argument that anyone without a job is “workshy”. What the hell makes them think anyone is going to want to employ the feckless cattle they portray, who can only be forced into motion by the application of a sharp stick? Surely stigmatising them makes it even less likely that they will be able to find work, regardless of whether they actually want to or not (and, of course, most people do want to)? If my ex had been stigmatised in the same way, would he have got his life changing chance?
Tories have been falling over themselves lately, saying that they don’t want people to be trapped on benefits. Even Esther McVey trotted out the same line in relation to disability benefits (note how strong willed I am, resisting a tangential rant on the need for DLA/PIP to enable people to work). We know there aren’t enough full time jobs to go round. Surely, the last thing a Government which doesn’t want to trap unemployed people on benefits should be doing is pre-completing their job applications with a stamp that declares in bold, capitalised letters in a font that somehow manages to scream, “SHIRKER”. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Lazy politicians who fall back on sloppy rhetoric (or just snipe from the sidelines without depth or real alternative policies) are the shirkers. Incompetent politicians who won’t admit their mistakes, let alone how those mistakes impact on others, are the shirkers. They’re the ones who should lose their jobs. They won’t be out of work for long but at least they might not be able to do quite as much damage from the highly paid grace and favour jobs they’re bound to end up in.