You hear a lot about unemployment these days, or more accurately, you hear a lot about the unemployed. Much political capital is being made by all of the major UK political parties about curtailing the luxurious lifestyles of that vast group of adults who are un or under-employed. A long running campaign has exhorted the populace to deride and dehumanise the workless, and programmes such as Benefits Street have added to the general noise, presenting a picture of the workless as feckless layabouts; the general consensus appears to be that they should all just go and get a job.
If only life was so simple. The words ‘get a job’ spill so glibly from the mouths of politicians and media commentators that anyone would believe that gaining employment must be easy. After all, a million new private sector jobs are claimed to have been created by the coalition between 2010 and 2012 – surely there’s work for everyone? At any one time in the labour market there’s generally around half a million jobs being advertised, why don’t the scroungers apply for them? Against a background noise like this, it’s no surprise that attitudes to the workless have drifted back into blaming the individual, with a reemergence of the deserving and undeserving poor that characterised Regency and Victorian approaches to poverty.
The truth is far from as convenient and so not mentioned by the likes of Ian Duncan Smith (Secretary of State for Work and Pensions) or the media. The truth is that individuals are not as responsible for their worklessness as commentators would like you to believe. The headline figures for the UK labour market show that between 2010 and 2012 the number of jobs in the UK economy had grown by 442,000, the ‘million private sector jobs’ which turned out to be 874,000 offset by declining public sector employment. A typical vacancy analysis shows that between December and February 2014 there were 588,000 vacancies in the labour market, which led the Office of National Statistics to claim a ratio of 4 unemployed people for every job. Ostensibly these figures back up the reactionary arguments and are often used to justify the war on the unemployed. Looking at them in detail suggests a different conclusion.
A staggering 4.9 million working age people have no employment , and 2.37 million of these receive Jobseekers Allowance, the state benefit that is contingent upon actively seeking work. A further 1.46 million UK workers are recorded as underemployed, meaning that they work part-time but wish to work full time. This means that at any one time there could be at least 3.83 million people chasing these 588,000 jobs, giving a ratio of one job for every 6.15 people. Of course, most of these jobs are not ‘new’ jobs, they are existing jobs being refilled because the person doing them has taken another job. These jobs are most likely to go to people in work. When I worked in employment and economic regeneration, we estimated that 90% of all vacancies would go to someone in work, and statistical analysis of vacancies versus falls in JSA seemed to bear this out. This would suggest that 60 people could be chasing every vacancy, and the ten percent without recent work history or proven work skills will be at a serious disadvantage here. Certainly the pictures of thousands of people queuing for 7 Jobs at a new Aldi store in the midlands recently backs this less positive analysis. It also seems reasonable to assume that even if all the jobs in the labour market went to unemployed people, the number of unemployed people would not reduce, but the individuals comprising the unemployed population would change. It’s called displacement – if an unemployed person takes a job that an employed person has vacated, that employed person is then unemployed. The truth is that there are not enough jobs, and blaming the unemployed for being out of work is equivalent to blaming fur seals for being clubbed.
Looking for work in Never-Neverland is my most recent painting, and it adds to the body of my work focusing on the human cost of our changing society. It draws on the fact that not only is the labour market oversupplied but has also changed massively. In the last ten years, vacancies in blue collar jobs have dropped by as much as a third, reflecting the changing nature of work. Growth industries are Hotel & Catering, Real Estate activities, and Professional, Scientific & Technical activities. Recruitment patterns have also changed, with a growth in the use of tests to pre-screen applicants, and online applications. Vacancies are now often handled by agencies, and applying for these means filling in an online form, and sending it of into the datasphere with no idea whether anybody at the other end is looking at it, and new contracting (zero hours, flexible working practices etc) have made it harder to work out what earnings are likely from any given vacancy. The bewilderment resulting, particularly for older workers entering the labour market for the first time due to redundancy, can be immense, both as a result of the changed labour market, and the fact that the real picture of the labour market is so far removed from the (non)portrayal used by the politico-media fueled frenzy of hate against the workless. Please dwell on this next time somebody says ‘get a job’.