"Four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job"? Probably not, Mr Grayling

A new report highlights the rareness of intergenerational worklessness, as well as its undesirability.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has a new report out putting to bed the myth of "cultures of worklessness".

It's a powerful narrative, frequently voiced by members of the public, and occasionally – shamefully – repeated by government ministers who ought to know better:

We have got places where there are three generations of men who have never worked. If your grandfather never worked and your father never worked, why would you think work is the normal thing to do?

– Dame Carol Black, 2008

For too long, in too many deprived areas of the country, there has been a destructive culture that ‘no-one around here works’.

– Gordon Brown, 2003

... there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job. – Chris Grayling, Minister for Work and Pensions, BBC ‘Newsnight’, 15 February 2011

The most extreme version of the claim - that there were four generations who have never worked (in other words, the version spread by the Minister for Work and Pensions) –  seems to be entirely unsupportable. The JRF write:

Despite dogged searching in localities with high rates of worklessness across decades we were unable to locate any families in which there were three generations in which no-one had ever worked. [Emphasis theirs]

That's right – they can't even find three generations, let alone four. "Three generations of worklessness" is, by the way, a claim made by Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling's boss. Also unsupportable.

The foundation was assured, at least, that there were families with two generations of worklessness, and even made an infographic detailing the evidence that they exist – even if they do make up just 0.09 per cent of the working population:

Unfortunately, even finding any of those families was tricky. In the end, the report had to settle for interviewing families with one generation in long-term unemployment, and a second which had never worked. With these, vastly reduced, criteria, they managed to find twenty families to interview about why they were in that situation. And what they found is that across the generations, people stressed the social, psychological and financial value of working for a living:

“It gives your whole day some sort of order. It’s like a regimental thing ... whereas if you are just sat around it can be frustrating and awful, really.”

Patrick Richards, 49, Middlesbrough

“I’ve always wanted to be able to say to somebody, ‘I work here’, ‘I’m going to my work’.”

Pamela Fraser, 21, Glasgow

“Of course it would be important to me [to have a job], especially when I’m only on £95 a fortnight. God, to have a wage that would be £95 a week; I would feel like a millionaire!”

Verity Lamb, 16, Middlesbrough

The research thus argues that, in so far as there is intergenerational worklessness, it is not due to a "culture" or "inherited attitude", but rather due to the calcification of long-term unemployment, and the existence of employment black holes.

It concludes:

that politicians and policy-makers need to abandon theories – and policies flowing from them – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations. If these cultures cannot be found in the extreme cases studied here, they are unlikely to explain more general patterns of worklessness in the UK.

We doubt the cabinet are listening.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.