The long road from welfare to work

Will the government’s proposals to change the way training providers are paid really help solve the

In one of the upstairs rooms at the Rathbone training organisation's facilities in Oldham, Greater Manchester, Josh Duffy is leaning back on a chair that is too small and totting up the organisations that have tried to help him get a job. Rathbone is the sixth training provider with which Josh, who's just become a dad, has had contact since leaving school two years ago.

We count them up: first, there was North Lancs Training, where he studied construction. He left to go to Oldham College, where he was enrolled on a Level 1 bricklaying course. Then, after he decided that wasn't for him, a company called Work Solutions provided him with a mentor and some help writing a CV. "I didn't see them often. I didn't have much chance of getting a job. I was young and I had no experience," Josh explains.

After about six months without progress, he applied for plumbing. But that was with a private training provider and Josh couldn't afford the £2,500 fee. Next, he embarked on an "entry to employment" course with the YMCA. After eight weeks there, things seemed to be looking up. He had certificates in first aid, manual handling and safety, and the YMCA had moved him on to something called a "foundation modern apprenticeship" in retail, with a placement at an Ethel Austin clothing store. A couple of months down the line, he was told there wasn't any prospect of a job – the chain was cutting the hours of permanent staff and later went into administration.

So, Josh washed up at the door of Rathbone, which found him a work placement at a local store called B&M Bargains. Despite his ropey training history, the charity was prepared to give him a go, secure in the knowledge that it would be paid for its work. In future, it might have to think harder about doing this. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, proposes that organisations delivering his welfare-to-work programme should be paid by results. That, according to Paul Fletcher, Rathbone's director of youth engagement, will leave them with tough decisions to make about whether to carry on doing what they do best – taking the most disaffected young people off the streets and setting them on their feet – or to focus on the easy-to-help and a healthy bank balance. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with payment by results, he tells me, it's just that it doesn't seem to have been adequately thought through.

“Principles are good, but the consequences for the financial balance sheet can be messy," Fletcher concedes. "The big question for organisations like ours is: do we start to be more selective and drive our performance in terms of who we are going to get paid for, or do we stick with our mission and risk not actually getting paid? The way a lot of providers will respond is by being selective at the front door. That means the most vulnerable and the most marginalised could end up going underground, losing their benefits and going into the black economy."

Revolving door

Duncan Smith's proposals are an extension of rules that began to be implemented under the last government. Under Labour's Flexible New Deal, providers were paid 20 per cent of their fee – typically about £1,400 in total – upfront, 30 per cent when clients had found a job and stuck at it for three months, and the rest after they'd been working six months. Now, it's likely that the full payment will not come in until they have stuck with a job for a year.

In some ways, what is happening is a fundamental shift in the way we deal with the young unemployed. Previously, the critical target of government programmes was to get people off the books of organisations such as Jobcentre Plus, so the end result was less important.

Julie Bird, the Rathbone tutor who brought Josh to the centre, sums up the old approach: "Everybody has targets to meet and as long as [the clients] are in some kind of training, it makes the statistics look good." The problem with this, she explains, is that these programmes become an end in themselves. Lots of people, like Josh, end up in a kind of revolving door, spat out by one provider, then sucked in by another. "There's quite a few in that situation," Bird says. "There's not always a guaranteed job at the end of it. Once the young person's off that book, there's no follow-up."

So well recognised is this phenomenon that there's even a word for it in the trade – "churn". There is no requirement for training organisations to monitor how many times their recruits have been around the course before, so there are no statistics to back up the sense that these short-term fixes haven't been working. Yet a major study on disengaged youth published in 2008 by the Nuffield Foundation and Rathbone estimated that four out of ten young people who were out of work were caught in a repeating cycle of short-term courses, casual employment and joblessness.

Rebuilding walls

Duncan Smith's payment-by-results plan is designed to deal with this. The question for the new government will be whether, by such a simple expedient as not paying the providers of back-to-work schemes until they deliver long-term results, it can reverse decades of labour-market casualisation and even the age-old tendency of the young to drift from one job, or one course, to another.

With youth unemployment hovering at the one million mark, and reports that there will be 70 applications for every graduate job this year, the issue looks unlikely to go away in the near future.

Fletcher has a different solution, which is gaining currency among many of those who work with the young unemployed. We should, he says, return to the glory days of Margaret Thatcher's Youth Training Scheme (YTS). One of Fletcher's first jobs was running such a scheme. "We rebuilt people's garden walls with old tradesmen passing on their skills, so there was job satisfaction and understanding," he says. "The key thing is, it's got to be perceived as real. At the time, I thought it was just OK, but with hindsight it was a good scheme."

YTS, he points out, was a 12-month placement – later extended to two years – with a non-means-tested allowance of around £30 a week – the same as today's education maintenance allowance, and in real terms about three times as high. Most of the participants progressed into real jobs.

Josh, after many false starts, has almost managed to do the same. He's just been told B&M Bargains is prepared to take him on as an apprentice. He talks with enthusiasm about his workplace, where he has been getting a £30 allowance for a 30-hour week since last November. "I'm looking after the furniture department. I build displays and do merchandising. It's great – I like hands-on work," he explains. As an apprentice, he'll still be on a low wage: "It's rubbish, but it's got to be done," he says, cheerfully. For him, finally, there should be a happy ending. It is much less clear how the legions of similarly unlucky or confused young people will fare under the new system.

The lost generation

Unemployment rose from 1.3 million to more than 3.4 million during Margaret Thatcher's premiership. Families were hardest hit in Northern Ireland, where unemployment reached 20 per cent, and in Scotland and the north-east, where the jobless rate was roughly 15 per cent.

In response to the persistently high rates of youth unemployment, Thatcher founded the Youth Training Scheme, a programme offering on-the-job training to 16- and 17-year-olds. The scheme was praised by some as an effective replacement for apprenticeships, but others argued that it enabled employers to exploit school leavers as cheap labour.

Many historians view the rise in unemployment as a regrettable but necessary consequence of the Tories' economic policies. Others, however, contend that the Thatcher government deliberately raised unemployment in order to destroy trade union militancy. Sir Alan Budd, who recently resigned as head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, said in 1992: "Raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes, if you like . . . What was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism, which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since."

George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party

MARTIN O’NEILL
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The new young fogeys

Today’s teens and twentysomethings seem reluctant to get drunk, smoke cigarettes or have sex. Is abstinence the new form of youth rebellion?

In a University College London lecture theatre, all eyes are on an elaborate Dutch apple cake. Those at the back have stood up to get a better look. This, a chorus of oohs and aahs informs me, is a baked good at its most thrilling.

In case you were wondering, UCL hasn’t rented out a room to the Women’s Institute. All thirty or so cake enthusiasts here are undergraduates, aged between 18 and 21. At the third meeting this academic year of UCL’s baking society, the focus has shifted to a Tupperware container full of peanut butter cookies. One by one, the students are delivering a brief spiel about what they have baked and why.

Sarah, a 19-year-old human sciences undergraduate, and Georgina, aged 20, who is studying maths and physics, help run the baking society. They tell me that the group, which was set up in 2012, is more popular than ever. At the most recent freshers’ fair, more than 750 students signed up. To put the number in perspective: that is roughly 15 per cent of the entire first-year population. The society’s events range from Great British Bake Off-inspired challenges to “bring your own cake” gatherings, such as today’s. A “cake crawl”, I am told, is in the pipeline. You know, like a pub crawl . . . but with cake? Georgina says that this is the first year the students’ union has advertised specifically non-drinking events.

From the cupcake boom to the chart-topping eminence of the bow-tie-wearing, banjo-plucking bores Mumford & Sons, the past decade of youth culture has been permeated by wholesomeness. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), this movement is more than just aesthetic. Not only are teenage pregnancies at their lowest level since records began in the 1960s, but drug-taking, binge drinking and sexually transmitted infections among young people have also taken significant dives. Drug use among the under-25s has fallen by a quarter over the past ten years and heavy drinking – measured by how much a person drinks in an average week – is down by 15 per cent. Cigarettes are also losing their appeal, with under-25 smokers down by 10 per cent since 2001. Idealistic baby boomers had weed and acid. Disaffected and hedonistic Generation X-ers had Ecstasy and cocaine. Today’s youth (which straddles Generations Y and Z) have cake. So, what shaped this demographic that, fairly or otherwise, could be called “Generation Zzzz”?

“We’re a lot more cynical than other generations,” says Lucy, a 21-year-old pharmacy student who bakes a mean Welsh cake. “We were told that if we went to a good uni and got a good job, we’d be fine. But now we’re all so scared we’re going to be worse off than our parents that we’re thinking, ‘Is that how we should be spending our time?’”

“That” is binge drinking. Fittingly, Lucy’s dad – she tells me – was an anarchist with a Mohawk who, back home in the Welsh valleys, was known to the police. She talks with deserved pride about how he joined the Conservative Party just to make trouble and sip champagne courtesy of his enemies. Lucy, though decidedly Mohawk-free, is just as politically aware as her father. She is concerned that she will soon graduate into a “real world” that is particularly hard on women.

“Women used to be a lot more reliant on men,” she says, “but it’s all on our shoulders now. One wage isn’t enough to support a family any more. Even two wages struggle.”

***

It seems no coincidence that the downturn in drink and drugs has happened at the same time as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Could growing anxiety about the future, combined with a dip in disposable income, be taming the under-25s?

“I don’t know many people who choose drugs and alcohol over work,” says Tristan, a second-year natural scientist. He is one of about three men at the meeting and it is clear that even though baking has transcended age it has yet to transcend gender to the same extent. He is softly spoken and it is hard to hear him above a room full of sugar-addled youths. “I’ve been out once, maybe, in the past month,” he says.

“I actually thought binge drinking was quite a big deal for our generation,” says Tegan, a 19-year-old first-year linguistics undergraduate, “but personally I’m not into that. I’ve only been here three weeks and I can barely keep up with the workload.”

Tegan may consider her drinking habits unusual for someone her age but statistically they aren’t. Over a quarter of the under-25s are teetotal. Neither Tegan nor Lucy is dull. They are smart, witty and engaging. They are also enthusiastic and seemingly quite focused on work. It is this “get involved” attitude, perhaps, that distinguishes their generation from others.

In Absolutely Fabulous, one of the most popular British sitcoms of the 1990s, a lot of the humour stems from the relationship between the shallow and fashion-obsessed PR agent Edina Monsoon and her shockingly straitlaced teenage daughter, Saffie. Although Saffie belongs to Generation X, she is its antithesis: she is hard-working, moral, politically engaged, anti-drugs and prudishly anti-sex. By the standards of the 1990s, she is a hilarious anomaly. Had Ab Fab been written in the past couple of years, her character perhaps would have been considered too normal. Even her nerdy round glasses and frumpy knitted sweaters would have been considered pretty fashionable by today’s geek-chic standards.

Back in the UCL lecture theatre, four young women are “geeking out”. Between mouthfuls of cake, they are discussing, with palpable excitement, a Harry Potter-themed summer camp in Italy. “They play Quidditch and everything – there’s even a Sorting Hat,” says the tall, blonde student who is leading the conversation.

“This is for children, right?” I butt in.

“No!” she says. “The minimum age is actually 15.”

A kids’ book about wizards isn’t the only unlikely source of entertainment for this group of undergraduates. The consensus among all the students I speak to is that baking has become so popular with their demographic because of The Great British Bake Off. Who knew that Mary Berry’s chintzy cardigans and Sue Perkins’s endless puns were so appealing to the young?

Are the social and economic strains on young people today driving them towards escapism at its most gentle? Animal onesies, adult ball pools (one opened in west London last year) and that much-derided cereal café in Shoreditch, in the East End, all seem to make up a gigantic soft-play area for a generation immobilised by anxiety.

Emma, a 24-year-old graduate with whom I chatted on email, agrees. “It feels like everyone is more stressed and nervous,” she says. “It seems a particularly telling sign of the times that adult colouring-in books and little, cutesy books on mindfulness are such a massive thing right now. There are rows upon rows of bookshelves dedicated solely to all that . . . stuff.” Emma would know – she works for Waterstones.

From adult colouring books to knitting (UCL also has a knitting society, as do Bristol, Durham, Manchester and many more universities), it is hard to tell whether the tsunami of tweeness that has engulfed middle-class youth culture in the past few years is a symptom or a cause of the shrinking interest in drugs, alcohol, smoking and other “risk-taking” behaviours.

***

Christine Griffin is Professor of Social Psychology at Bath University. For the past ten years, she has been involved in research projects on alcohol consumption among 18-to-25-year-olds. She cites the recession as a possible cause of alcohol’s declining appeal, but notes that it is only part of the story. “There seems to be some sort of polarisation going on,” Griffin says. “Some young people are actually drinking more, while others are drinking less or abstaining.

“There are several different things going on but it’s clear that the culture of 18-to-25-year-olds going out to get really drunk hasn’t gone away. That’s still a pervasive social norm, even if more young people are drinking less or abstaining.”

Griffin suggests that while frequent, sustained drinking among young people is in decline, binge drinking is still happening – in short bursts.

“There are still a lot of people going to music festivals, where a huge amount of drinking and drug use goes on in a fairly unregulated way,” she says. It is possible that music festivals and holidays abroad (of the kind depicted in Channel 4 programmes such as What Happens in Kavos, in which British teenagers leave Greek islands drenched in booze and other bodily fluids) are seen as opportunities to make a complete escape from everyday life. An entire year’s worth of drinking, drug-taking and sex can be condensed into a week, or even a weekend, before young people return to a life centred around hard work.

Richard De Visser, a reader in psychology at Sussex University, also lists the economy as a possible cause for the supposed tameness of the under-25s. Like Griffin, however, he believes that the development is too complex to be pinned purely on a lack of disposable income. Both Griffin and De Visser mention that, as Britain has become more ethnically diverse, people who do not drink for religious or cultural reasons – Muslims, for instance – have become more visible. This visibility, De Visser suggests, is breaking down taboos and allowing non-mainstream behaviours, such as not drinking, to become more socially accepted.

“There’s just more variety,” he says. “My eldest son, who’s about to turn 14, has conversations – about sexuality, for example – that I never would’ve had at his age. I think there’s more awareness of alcohol-related problems and addiction, too.”

De Visser also mentions the importance of self-image and reputation to many of the young non-drinkers to whom he has spoken. These factors, he argues, are likely to be more important to people than the long-term effects of heavy drinking. “One girl I interviewed said she wouldn’t want to meet the drunk version of herself.”

Jess, a self-described “granny”, is similarly wary of alcohol. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who works in marketing, makes a bold claim for someone her age. “I’ve never really been drunk,” she says. “I’ve just never really been bothered with alcohol or drugs.” Ironically, someone of her generation, according to ONS statistics, is far more likely to be teetotal than a real granny at any point in her life. Jess says she enjoys socialising but her nights out with close friends are rather tame – more likely to involve dinner and one quick drink than several tequila shots and a traffic cone.

It is possible, she suggests, that her lack of interest in binge drinking, or even getting a little tipsy, has something to do with her work ethic. “There’s a lot more competition now,” she says. “I don’t have a degree and I’m conscious of the need to be on top of my game to compete with people who do. There’s a shortage of jobs even for people who do have degrees.”

Furthermore, Jess says that many of her interactions with friends involve social media. One theory put forward to explain Generation Zzzz is that pubs are losing business to Facebook and Twitter as more and more socialising happens online. Why tell someone in person that you “like” their baby, or cat, or new job (probably over an expensive pint), when you can do so from your sofa, at the click of a button?

Hannah, aged 22, isn’t so sure. She recently started her own social media and communications business and believes that money, or the lack of it, is why her peers are staying in. “Going out is so expensive,” she says, “especially at university. You can’t spend out on alcohol, then expect to pay rent and fees.” Like Jess (and as you would probably expect of a 22-year-old who runs a business), Hannah has a strong work ethic. She also has no particular interest in getting wasted. “I’ve always wanted my own business, so for me everything else was just a distraction,” she says. “Our generation is aware it’s going to be a bit harder for us, and if you want to support yourself you have to work for it.” She also suggests that, these days, people around her age have more entrepreneurial role models.

I wonder if Hannah, as a young businesswoman, has been inspired by the nascent strand of free-market, “lean in” feminism. Although the women’s movement used to align itself more with socialism (and still does, from time to time), it is possible that a 21st-century wave of disciples of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is forswearing booze, drugs and any remote risk of getting pregnant, in order to get ahead in business.

But more about sex. Do the apparently lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and teenage pregnancies suggest that young people are having less of it? In the age of Tinder, when hooking up with a stranger can be as easy as ordering a pizza, this seems unlikely. Joe Head is a youth worker who has been advising 12-to-21-year-olds in the Leighton Buzzard area of Bedfordshire on sexual health (among other things) for 15 years. Within this period, Head says, the government has put substantial resources into tackling drug use and teen pregnancy. Much of this is the result of the Blair government’s Every Child Matters (ECM) initiative of 2003, which was directed at improving the health and well-being of children and young adults.

“ECM gave social services a clearer framework to access funds for specific work around sexual health and safety,” he says. “It also became a lot easier to access immediate information on drugs, alcohol and sexual health via the internet.”

***

Head also mentions government-funded education services such as Frank – the cleverly branded “down with the kids” anti-drugs programme responsible for those “Talk to Frank” television adverts. (Remember the one showing bags of cocaine being removed from a dead dog and voiced by David Mitchell?)

But Head believes that the ways in which some statistics are gathered may account for the apparent drop in STIs. He refers to a particular campaign from about five years ago in which young people were asked to take a test for chlamydia, whether they were sexually active or not. “A lot of young people I worked with said they did multiple chlamydia tests throughout the month,” he says. The implication is that various agencies were competing for the best results in order to prove that their education programmes had been effective.

However, regardless of whether govern­ment agencies have been gaming the STI statistics, sex education has improved significantly over the past decade. Luke, a 22-year-old hospital worker (and self-described “boring bastard”), says that sex education at school played a “massive part” in his safety-conscious attitude. “My mother was always very open [about sex], as was my father,” he says. “I remember talking to my dad at 16 about my first serious girlfriend – I had already had sex with her by this point – and him giving me the advice, ‘Don’t get her pregnant. Just stick to fingering.’” I suspect that not all parents of millennials are as frank as Luke’s, but teenagers having sex is no longer taboo.

Luke’s attitude towards drugs encapsulates the Generation Zzzz ethos beautifully: although he has taken MDMA, he “researched” it beforehand. It is this lack of spontaneity that has shaped a generation of young fogeys. This cohort of grannies and boring bastards, of perpetual renters and jobseekers in an economy wrecked by less cautious generations, is one that has been tamed by anxiety and fear.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war