Laurie Penny: Jobless young people: good for a laugh, eh

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Roll up for the youth unemployment show! If being one of almost a million young people out of work weren't humiliating enough, the BBC has now commissioned a programme pitting jobless graduates and school-leavers against one another while viewers watch and snicker. According to the careers website Graduate Fog, Love Productions is advertising for contestants on the show, which will see employers hiring or rejecting young hopefuls live on air.

Mocking the desperate and downtrodden has always made good television, and this new gameshow will not be the first to exploit the unemployed to boost ratings. Consider The Fairy Jobmother, possibly the ghastliest piece of poverty porn ever made, whose second series aired on Channel 4 this week. The programme's eponymous pantomime dame is Hayley Taylor, former manager of a private company contracted by the Government to bully the long-term unemployed into a dwindling selection of minimum-wage jobs.

Taylor prances around like Norman Tebbit in bad business drag, all garish pussybow scarves and government propaganda, jollying and cajoling workless contestants through the application process and informing them that lack of confidence is the only thing stopping them from finding work, rather than economic circumstances beyond their control.

She opens the series by repeating the Government's headline statistic that the £87bn welfare bill is too high, and that the jobless are merely "work-shy", brandishing a Daily Mail headline to illustrate her point. "My belief is that there are jobs out there," declares this cheery Widow Twankey of welfare. That's nice for her – but with the gap between available jobs and the number of working-age adults at 5.4 million, according to a report by the New Economics Foundation, it might seem a rather cruel delusion on which to structure a piece of television.

Television is a shared social language, and these days the most popular programmes out there are vicious reality play-offssuch as The X Factor, Britain's Got Talent, The Apprentice, Dragon's Den and, now, Fairy Jobmother. It may seem like harmless fun to giggle at desperate hopefuls embarrassing themselves for our viewing pleasure, but the endless heats and finals encourage us to see life as a ruthless competition in which personal "star" quality is all that divides winners from losers, the fortunate few from the undeserving poor.

Reality television is becoming political reality. With Alan Sugar sitting in the Lords and advising the Government on "enterprise", more and more companies have adopted hiring practices self-consciously modelled on game-shows. Graduate recruiters mock up Apprentice-style judging panels and force desperate applicants to create video diaries, sing little songs, and otherwise humiliate themselves for the amusement of prospective employers, who may or may not reward them with the ultimate prize – a job or unpaid internship, for which they are expected, like good contestants, to be weepily grateful.

What's missing, as those left destitute by the recession are patronised and dismissed for our amusement, is any suggestion of human dignity. Consider the contempt with which The Fairy Jobmother treats Dave, the one contestant on this week's show speaking the language of worker's rights. Dave is an overweight, unshaven former security man from Liverpool; the camera draws him as a pantomime nightmare of proletarian intransigence. When he says the Government should "put up taxes" rather than slashing welfare, and demands a job that pays a decent wage, The Fairy Jobmother simply laughs at him, saying: "That's not for you to really decide." John Maynard Keynes would be on Dave's side, as would millions of union organisers.

Dignity is the bottom line. If we are all unwilling contestants in the pitiless reality knock-out that was once known as the labour market, the prizes are looking less and less enticing. It may all be a game to a government gleefully eviscerating the public sector, but with young people taking to the streets and a wave of strikes on the horizon, it looks like more of us are going to start refusing to play.

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