"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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder