Deborah Orr: The difference between migrants and Britons is a difference in expectation

A lot of people find it hard that their sense of identity is tied to the night shift at Little Chef
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John Hutton claims to be perplexed by the fact that eastern European migrants are prepared to do work that people on Jobseeker's Allowance are not. "Economic migration from the EU has only served to highlight this issue," he declared in a speech on Monday. "If workers from Poland can take advantage of these vacancies in our major cities, why can't our own people do so as well?"

All one can say is that it doesn't take much to confuse the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. It's reasonable to be irritated, or even furious, that people would rather sit at home, their bills picked up by others, than work to end up with the same amount to spend on a more financially demanding and complex existence. But grasping why it might be so is not rocket science.

Let's leave aside the obvious point that such stiff competition for not-very-desirable jobs is what keeps wage inflation down anyway, and helps a voracious economy to thrive so dynamically at both ends of the equation. Isn't it fairly obvious that one large difference between migrants from eastern Europe and people brought up in Britain is a difference in expectation? In our highly aspirational culture, work isn't sold to society simply as an unpleasant slog that is necessary and valuable in terms of keeping body and soul together, with respect and fairness accorded to those who accept such a basic, no-frills contract.

Instead it is gussied up as being a defining part of our identity and our self-worth. The problem is that while being say, work and pensions secretary, might offer a rather pleasing portrait of one's standing as a human, a lot of people find it hard to swallow the fact that their own sense of identity and self-worth needs must be tied to the night-shift at the Little Chef back-kitchens on the M-whatever, at £5.90 an hour. Such pickiness was once the preserve of the more privileged classes. But in a supposedly egalitarian society, that nevertheless manages to be surprisingly ungenerous with its social mobility, some people are bound to be a little confused about where exactly they fit in.

No doubt such people have too much arrogance and not enough pride, and ought to jolly well accept they have to cut their cloth according to its width. But it's damn hard to tell them that to their faces, especially when they are in a heap on the floor, weeping at the thought that they might one day have to give up their aspirations - sometimes laughably unrealistic - and knuckle down to dreary life at the insalubrious bottom of a big, fat, glamorous, wealthy heap.

Further, even if these ambitious but somehow incapable types - and I've know many of them, gentle, baffled, people mostly - are somehow dragooned into taking such jobs, they're usually useless at them, as any employer will tell you.

They're a pain when they're young, these unrealistic and reluctant proletarians, but at least there's hope then - quite often fulfilled - that they will find a real life that engages them at some point. As they get older, it gets worse though. There's something ineffably touching about a man or a woman who wakes up in middle-age to realise that whatever it was going to be, ain't happening for them

Mainly, they're just a bit lost, perplexed and frustrated themselves about the world's lack of ability to reward them as they deserve to be rewarded. Sometimes, unhelpfully, they're going slowly barking because they find it hard to admit that they despise themselves. Regularly, this unenviable mental state presents itself in unpleasant ways. People who would never admit to feeling depressed, even to the doctor who might get them on to incapacity benefit, instead process their inner turmoil as anger.

Then their problems are multiplied, because they rant on like total nutters about what a cheek the world has to abuse them as it does, and wake up one morning to find they have no job and no friends either. Even when they do get work, awkward and short-tempered encounters sometimes ensue, which put them back at square one.

Often, people who find themselves neatly spatchcocked into welfare dependency are far from stupid. They have degrees, or other qualifications, or talents or skills. But somehow they missed the window they needed to turn these assets into experience on a CV and they're just too long in the tooth to compete with the kids and find a way in. They have some personal charm, though, and don't actually mind getting their hands dirty, as long as they can tell themselves it's only temporary.

So they work here and there, in informal employment, doing some cleaning, helping out self-employed friends when the work is there, or playing local gigs in the evening. They do all sorts of bits and pieces. They keep up the presence of being job seekers, so that they get their housing benefit paid, and because they're afraid that in the lean times they'll have nothing to fall back on. They still think something is going to come along. But it isn't going to be retraining as a bus driver.

The miracle, when you think about it, is not that 100,000 people on Jobseeker's Allowance have been claiming for six years or more. It's that the number is so small. Consider the turnover in our prisons and the ex-convicts on the job market, the widespread problem of alcohol and drug abuse, the difficulty in getting meaningful treatment for mental health problems, the shortage of affordable homes, the high rates of educational failure and of childhood poverty, and so on, and this figure looks rather modest.

The country is full of people who get on with boring or tedious work that doesn't pay very much, and do so without complaint. They make their money go far, they bring their children up nicely, and they enjoy their lives. Acknowledging a little more that such people are the backbone on which the economic beanfeast rests, and concentrating a little less on those who for whatever reason don't have the character and life skills to do so, might help us to appreciate each other more, instead of endlessly imagining that the country is full of feckless rip-off artists who are interested only in being parasites.

We've just spent 20 years switching our economy into a skills-based economy, and for a lot of people and communities the process has been pretty damned painful. A lot of the problems that such fast and ruthless restructuring caused are still with us, and we haven't worked out how to solve them.

In the main, though, people have adjusted well, and for the people that didn't, life is not a party. If my life consisted of eking out government handouts, and being despised for my inability to thrive in the mainstream, I wouldn't be very happy. Why government rhetoric should suggest that such lives are somehow enviable snooks that have been cocked at the rest of us, I simply cannot begin to imagine. It does no good at all.