Thank goodness for middle-class angst over jobs

Forget those temporary contracts for computer analysts or market researchers, and consider instead the security guards, the shop assistants
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The Independent Online
Jobs, glorious jobs: they will be dripping from the trees in the new year if all this upbeat talk on the economy is to be believed. Employment prospects are the best for seven years, according to a survey out today from the employment agency Manpower. Coming hot on the heels of the record drop in unemployment reported last month, and the booming Christmas shopping figures, the jobs news is positive indeed.

Big jobs, little jobs, fat jobs, thin jobs: take your pick, for it seems there is a veritable employment orgy looming. Well, on the basis of the old economic adage that what goes down must, given time, bounce back up again, the news is hardly surprising. But the curious thing is that nobody out in the Labour market seems too cheerful about jobs growth this time round. Too many little thin jobs and not enough fat juicy ones, is the general complaint - and it is voiced loudest among the chattering classes. The new jobs - they tell us - are fragile creatures, liable to up-end and die long before the next recession arrives. Even worse, according to the apocalyptic pundits, this new fragility problem is hitting the middle classes particularly hard. Whether it be through down-sizing, out- sizing or casualisation, something insidious out there is troubling our middle classes, traumatising our national culture, and undermining economic optimism for all. In case you missed it, job insecurity is the zeitgeist for the end of the century.

Which story should we believe? The Government is backing the glorious jobs tale; the journalists, insecurity. Neither are to be trusted. The Government's interest in talking up the labour market is clear. But journalists should declare their own preoccupation, too. How many times in the past few years have we seen articles or documentaries on shaky professional jobs and the anxious graduates who fill them?

Irrespective of what is going on in the rest of the country, the publishing world and the media, including national newspapers, have shifted a lot of employees into temporary contracts and freelance work. That and the rising competition for popular jobs are understandably making the hacks feel insecure. And that is why there is so much fuss about the new middle- class insecurity.

The real story about the labour market is rather different from both these special-interest views. Yes, as the Government claims, new jobs are being created. But a surprising proportion of these jobs are indeed part-time or temporary. That horrible anxious feeling of trying to cling to your pay cheque haunts an awful lot of people. But to characterise this angst and uncertainty as a wholly middle-class problem is ludicrous.

OK, we well-educated professional people may have a little to moan about. Two-thirds of the additional professional jobs created in the first four years of recovery were temporary. But middle-class insecurity may well be as temporary as those new jobs.

Think back to the height of the Eighties boom. An awful lot of people switched from one job to another very fast. Because companies were growing, workers found opportunities everywhere. Graduates flirted with one employer after another. Funnily enough, they didn't seem to mind the instability of changing jobs when they were on the up. Instability only mutated into insecurity when recession struck. Temporary contracts suited many people fine when they knew they had plenty of offers to choose from.

Now, with employment rising again, those with the education, qualifications, or ability to acquire new skills quickly (in other words, the middle classes) are likely to find themselves once more in demand. We have lost our cushion against recession now, but we haven't lost our market power when times are good. Given another boom, or even just a few years of steady, sustainable growth, "middle-class job insecurity" could slip out of our vocabulary as fast as it slipped in.

If only the same thing could be said of insecurity in our society as a whole. Sadly, for the low-skilled, the torment of never knowing where the next week's work is coming from is very real - and it isn't going away.

Forget those temporary contracts for computer analysts or market researchers for a moment, and consider instead the security guards, the builders, the shop assistants and the care workers. Paid abysmally and accorded little employment protection, these workers really are insecure. As a new Cambridge study (reported in The Independent this weekend) reveals, manual workers are far more likely to end up in temporary work than their professional peers.

Even worse: between the odd week's work here and there is the dole. Government statistics show that an astonishing half of new claimants signing on have been on the dole before - and within the past year. A worryingly large group of people are becoming trapped in a weird world on the edge of the labour market, stumbling in and out of jobs.

The world of work seems to be polarising. The insiders have the skills to adapt, get new jobs and earn higher wages; the outsiders skirt along the edges, lacking the skills to break into permanent work.

Faced with this kind of portrait of the Nineties workplace, there is something rather attractive about middle-class insecurity. After all, if we are ever going to create the political will and the democratic consensus to do something about the problems of the poor and the low-skilled, we may need to persuade everyone else that they have something to gain as well. Nobody worried much about vulnerable employees when they were all manual workers. Life-long learning and retraining could have been very useful for the manufacturing workers who lost their jobs in the Eighties. But adult education has only become sexy since professional workers realised that they could benefit from it too, as they switched between jobs and careers.

Middle-class job insecurity could be a powerful force for change. Let us hope that the new government can capitalise on it and tackle the worse insecurity felt by those at the very bottom of the jobs pile.