The jobless are lazy? That's just a vile lie

Even the low-paid are happier and  less anxious than the unemployed

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Fact File
  • 900,000 The number of UK residents who have been unemployed for over a year
  • 10 to 1 Ration of jobseekers to available jobs

The debate over skivers versus strivers has revealed the very worst side of the sneering Tory party. It amounts to nothing less than class war. We are in the depths of a recession where there are more than two-and-a-half million unemployed, including 900,000 who have been unemployed for more than a year. Just over a third of them are under the age of 25.

We know from work I have conducted with David Bell of the University of Stirling that long spells of unemployment when you are young create permanent scars, rather than the temporary blemishes they are on older age groups. There is little evidence that anything but a handful of these youngsters have chosen a life of leisure on Marmite sandwiches.

We also have a lot of evidence of enormous amounts of underemployment; 1.4 million workers have part-time jobs because they couldn’t find full-time jobs, plus many full-time workers want more hours. It turns out that underemployment falls disproportionately on the young. Also, there are large numbers of the self-employed who have little or no work – the self-unemployed. There are a further  2.3 million individuals aged 16-64 who are not in the labour force, the so-called economically active, who say they want a job. Given that there are only 486,000 vacancies, there are at least 10 jobseekers for every available job.

In its impact assessment, the Department for Work and Pensions made clear that the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill hurts the poor the most: “Households towards the bottom of the income distribution are more  likely to be affected, and have a slightly higher average change because  they are more likely to receive the affected benefits”. So much for our all being in this together.

There has been a debate for some years over whether people choose to be unemployed, that is whether unemployment is voluntary or involuntary. All the evidence supports the view that Marx’s reserve army of unemployed is a conscript army, not a volunteer one. The unemployed are drafted in by society as a whole through no choice of their own. They would prefer to be working. The evidence is that unemployment, especially long spells, leads to poor health and unhappiness. Of course, there is some evidence of reverse causation: people in poor physical and mental health are more likely to be unemployed.

People who lose jobs, even if they eventually find new ones, suffer lasting damage to their earnings potential, their health and the prospects of their children. And the longer it takes to find a new job, the deeper the damage appears to be. So why would they choose to be idle and poor? A worker laid off at 40 could expect to die at least a year sooner than his peers.

One study even found that unemployed people gradually lost the ability to read. Why would you do this to yourself by choice? The claim the unemployed are skivers is demonstrably false. The Coalition seems to forget that one of the main reasons for providing benefits in a capitalist economy is to facilitate the job search and enable square pegs to find square holes. Currently, there are not enough holes either round or square.

One study even found that unemployed people gradually lost the ability to read. Why would you do this to yourself by choice?

David Cameron introduced the concept of the Big Society and, with much razzmatazz, funded a wellbeing programme at the Office for National Statistics. Without economic growth, this was always going to come back to haunt him and now it is. Between April 2011 and April 2012, about 165,000 people in the Annual Population Survey were asked to report on their wellbeing. Here I report scores from two questions that measure wellbeing from that survey.

First: “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?” where nought is “not at all happy” and 10 is “completely happy”. Second: “How anxious did you feel yesterday?” on a scale where nought is “not at all anxious” and 10 is “completely anxious”.

In the table above, I give separate estimates for people based on their labour market status, including whether they are an employee and if so whether their gross weekly pay was in the lowest 10 per cent of the earnings distribution and also for the self-employed and those out of the labour force (OLF). I present average scores for the retired as well as those who are inactive but would like a job. The evidence shows that those with jobs are much happier than the unemployed or the OLF who want jobs, who are especially anxious.

Even the low-paid, defined as those in the lowest-paid jobs, are happier and less anxious than the unemployed or those OLF who want jobs. Getting a job even at low rates of pay makes people happy. The retired are happy despite the fact many are savers receiving low interest rates. Evidence of widespread unhappiness and anxiety seems unlikely if the jobless are just a bunch of “lazy bastard” skivers. And this evidence is from Dave’s own data.

The Coalition has made much of the idea that “three generations of the same family who have never worked” helps to explain entrenched worklessness in the UK. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation examined this issue in a new study*. Researchers in deprived neighbourhoods in Glasgow and Middlesbrough found unemployment was not the result of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations. The researchers were unable to locate any such families. Even two generations of complete worklessness in the same family was rare.

There was zero evidence of values, attitudes and behaviours discouraging employment and encouraging welfare dependency in the families taking part in the research. Working-age offspring, it found, remained committed to conventional values about work and were keen to avoid the joblessness experienced by their parents. So much for that one. More vile Coalition spin bites the dust.

*Tracy Shildrick, Robert MacDonald, Andy Furlong, Johann Roden and Robert Crow, Are ‘Cultures of Worklessness’ Passed Down the Generations?, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, December 2012.

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