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What Hope for the Jobless?

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Is there any return to full employment? Or will mass unemployment be ever with us? Barry Turner weighs up the options.

There are 15 million unemployed in America. And another 15 million without jobs in Europe. That’s a lot of people. The raw figures are somehow more revealing and more terrifying than percentages which delude by their simplicity. A point up here, a point down there, what’s the difference? Which is perhaps why unemployment is not yet the hot political issue it should be. Optimism, some might say, unnatural optimism, is the other reason. The assumption is of a rising demand for labour carried along in the wake of economic recovery.

It could happen but the evidence for national growth creating a healthy demand for labour is hard to find. Some job opportunities will appear but others are likely to be lost as technology takes up the slack. Plans for government-sponsored job creation in labour-intensive services such as education and care of the elderly conflict with the need to reduce national deficits. There are no prizes for guessing what will take priority.

One does not have to be a doomsday prophet to recognize that we may never return to the near full employment enjoyed by previous generations. This suggests we should start now to adapt to a culture which no longer has the day at the workplace as the very focus of being.

This is hardly a revolutionary thought. But ideas on advancing what in the 1930s was called the Leisure Society have rarely moved beyond think tank publications. Could it be that the work ethic is so fundamental that we can’t bear to contemplate the alternative? To hear politicians talk, you would certainly believe so. Jobs for all is a slogan shared by all parties.

The complaint is not simply that the objective is almost certainly unachievable but that it is also unimaginative, a step back into the future.

There is something inherently ridiculous in the concept of work for work’s sake. As Ralf Dahrendorf was fond of pointing out, we act as if our lives depend on work while at the same time doing all we can to reduce its burden. It would be a simple matter, for example, to multiply the jobs in road building by replacing mechanical diggers with picks and shovels. But who in their right mind would really want this to happen? There is no going back on the technological society, nor should we want to. The only alternative is to begin a serious reassessment of what life is, or should be, all about.

Theoretically, we all enjoy leisure. Those in work say they can’t get enough of it. But when it does come in abundance, the hours prove hard to fill. Depression follows. This is why so many of those among the long-term unemployed, who have all the time in the world, find it impossible to organize their lives constructively. Or why some retired people who have hitherto led frenetic lives, fall into apathy and die early.

It would help to encourage a more positive attitude to leisure. This has to start with education which, in recent years, has become vocationally orientated, on the bullish assumption that qualifications make for job creation. Even if this is true, the emphasis on training for work, and work only, sharpens the distinction between those who have it and those who can’t get it. For the latter, there is a consequent loss of identity, social status and self esteem.

A stronger cultural element in education would bring out talents that make for life satisfaction beyond the wage cheque—learning to play a musical instrument, say, or to paint or to climb a mountain. It is no coincidence that those blessed with a good rounded education seldom have any difficulty in filling every waking hour which is why schemes for voluntary redundancy often find the brightest and the best first in line.

If changes in education depend on a political initiative, so too do changes in work practices which must come if the gap between the have and have nots is to be narrowed. Increases in productivity should not simply be translated into wage increases for those who have work. Instead, the trend should be towards shorter working weeks, shorter working years and a shift in social values that allows for work sharing. To some extent this is already happening. Longer paid holidays and maternity leave, the introduction of paternity leave and sabbaticals are common to advanced companies. Time off for community service has great potential for stimulating voluntary activities that overlap work and leisure. Old-fashioned employers fear that work sharing is synonymous with idle hands. But there are many case histories where flexibility in the traditional work pattern has resulted in greater all-round satisfaction and higher output.

The tragedy of the current recession is that fear of unemployment and its consequences, at best a fall in living standards, at worst requisitioned homes, has made enlightened work practices harder to implement. When France introduced the thirty-five-hour week, the net result was for those in work to claim more overtime, the reverse of what was intended. Fear of unemployment was greater than the desire for leisure. That fear has intensified so that, for example, older people are hanging on to jobs that might otherwise go to their children, a tendency increased by a general lifting of the retirement age. We have entered what Tony Judt has called the ‘age of insecurity’ and it will take great political skill and imagination to get us out of it. Failure will be a society at war with itself, the ultimate paradox of the liberating power of technology.

Barry Turner, 2011

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