As a journalistically trained former claimant of the dole, I’ve been dispatched to certain vantage points in austerity Britain to reflect on the extent to which the young are being clobbered. Statistically, it’s a mauling. One in five young people are out of work. A quarter of graduates left university last year with no job to go to, despite being told that university was the key to a brighter future. Education Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped, university tuition fees trebled. Forty per cent cuts to housing benefit are removing steps from a ladder that enables young people from poorer backgrounds to compete for internships and jobs in the arts and charities sectors. Since coming to power, the coalition government has redrawn the relationship between rich and poor, old and young. On the 70th anniversary of William Beveridge’s landmark report, which outlined a whole raft of social security measures we’ve since come to accept as the basis of a just and fair society, universal benefits are being tightened or withdrawn while new obligations like mandatory work are reintroducing the spirit of the Victorian workhouse.
With claims that we’d be the first generation since the war to be poorer than our parents, and terms like “lost generation” being bandied around, as I set off on my assignment it feels as though I’ll be painting a picture of almost pornographic misery. But I’ve been getting to know some of the folks Iain Duncan Smith calls “these people” – as though sentencing a gang who violated his mother – when referring to the young unemployed, and some other people staring down the barrel. And the picture, while no St. Elmo’s Fire, offers some sad, infuriating and heartening pictures of young people doing what they’ve always done: trying to make it in conditions set by their parents’ generation.
When I go to Leicester, I hit Charles Street, the city’s gauntlet of economic decay. Derelict shopfronts scrape up against high-interest loan saloons. Careers centres are literally next door to temporary-work agencies. One building contains the offices of two sub-contractors of the government’s Work Programme, while another sub-contractor just down the way sends its staff out front to intimidate a journalist. And then, of course, down at the end of the boulevard of broken dreams, there’s the vomit-green beacon of the Jobcentre. You can stand in one place and see the young, the poor and the desperate bounce back and forth between these places like pinballs, as though some force larger than themselves is propelling them.
Here I meet Jamie Dollan, a 28-year-old stalwart of the welfare state, and Bilal Gill, 24, also unemployed. They are at music studio HQ Recording on work experience agreed by the Jobcentre. Before he found HQ, Gill was ordered to do mandatory work (for which he only received £56 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance) at the British Heart Foundation. “I’d go in for a shift from nine to five and all I did was cleaning,” he says. “It was boring. I didn’t do anything.” A band of youngsters have already tried to have mandatory-work schemes banned in the courts on human-rights grounds. But they lost. So the government carries on making people work for their dole money; what is often called workfare, or welfare-towork. The Jobcentre can make people work 30 hours a week for a month. But providers of the government’s Work Programme for the long-term unemployed can demand that people work for up to six months unpaid.
The official justification for this new form of workhouse is that the stubbornly unemployed have spent so much time watching daytime TV and making babies with people who are not their legal spouses that they don’t actually know what 9am looks like, so they need to spend a month familiarising themselves with harsher realities. These schemes are to be vastly expanded, with 70,000 people a year already on the Jobcentre’s Mandatory Work Activity scheme alone, despite the Department of Work and Pensions’ own statistics showing that workfare doesn’t help people into long-term employment. The real reason, then, is to do with a kind of patronising moralism that runs through the heart of government.
Cheered by the tabloids, and with public opinion on their side, our authoritarian leaders take great pride in kicking people out of bed for the sake of it. But Dollan broadly agrees with the concept. “I’d like them to chuck all the dossers off for a start. All the people that actually doss, you can tell. If I was in a situation where I had no income and was screwed, if I don’t pay my rent I’m out on the street, any job I’d be happy with. If they found a sausage-filling job or a shelf-stacking job they’d take it regardless because they need the money, so you can tell if they’re dossing or not.” True to his word, until his music career works out, Dollan, aka Jazz E Man, has secured himself a job at Kentucky Fried Chicken. A lot of people would say a man from his background, who left school at 16, shouldn’t expect any better. His producer Chaser, referred to by his mother and Jobcentre advisers as Jamie Tarbert, is at least showing that there’s a middle ground between totally making it in a field like music and doing a menial job.
He describes himself as “a self-employed photographer, producer, videographer – I do everything.” He has his own web portal, justdoin’me.TV, which showcases local rap talent, and from which he hopes to be making money through hits and advertising. He explains: “I don’t think the Jobcentre actually understands this. Like, I’ve never mentioned anything to the Jobcentre about my music. If you say to them, ‘I’m a music producer, I make music videos,’ they’re not going to look at you realistically. They want you to go out and get a 40-hour-aweek job that’s going to pay you minimum wage. If I went in there today and said, ‘I’m starting my own company, I do music videos, it’s all on YouTube,’ they’re not going to take me serious, They need to be more knowledgeable about things people actually want to do, instead of just trying to force people to do what they want them to.” Ten minutes away, in the bar at De Montfort University, a journalism student and a history student are pondering their futures over £1.50 pints of Grolsch. The latter, 20-year-old Stephen Smith, from a working-class family in York, cuts a figure of resigned pessimism. “I will without question move back in with my parents when I finish uni. Just three more years where I can avoid working. I have no problem with saying that was my number-one intention for coming to uni. And then see if, from a very general degree like history, something jobwise comes out of it. It hasn’t as yet, and I don’t see it coming either, to be honest.” Smith seems to have sunk into a state of despondency. “I just feel like I have little to no ambition because I don’t see the point in it. I don’t care any more, really. I want to do well in my degree so that I know more when I come out of it. I’m not thinking about a job because there won’t be one.”
I ask Stephen if it’s a bad thing that so many people go to university – if people such as himself ought to not bother wasting their time. “Definitely,” he says. “I would have done something else if they’d told me this was going to happen.” When I speak to 22-year-old Lauren Gamble from Coventry, a graduate looking for work as an illustrator, she communicates as though filling out job applications has become so deeply embedded into her psyche that she is now an extension of her CV. “I feel quite confident that I will do well at finding a job within the creative industry,” she says. “However, I think that there will be a lot of ‘working my way up’ before I reach a point where I feel comfortable and completely happy. But I am fine with this, as I consider that I still have a lot to learn about my field. In fact, because the creative industry is constantly developing and evolving, there’s always something new to learn.” Gamble is currently living with her parents and working as a waitress. She doesn’t want to claim benefits, which is admirable. But she seems to have internalised her identity as a jobseeker, making her a list of qualifications and “skills”.
In north London, I visit the home of some graduates trying to make the leap from unpaid work to paid work. It’s the kind of house that is so smothered with damp that the toilet paper is soggy. The ceilings have been known to collapse. The ten people who live here get a lot of chest problems, and one of them has had bronchitis, probably as a result of the damp. There’s asbestos in the basement, but they’re afraid of reporting their landlady to the council in case she terminates the contract, because they can’t afford to move. Rose Leifer, 23, is on the dole and claims housing benefit. She’s been unemployed since September after finishing her MA in Human Rights, and is currently volunteering at a refugee centre, even though she currently lives in conditions not too dissimilar from that of a refugee. “I want to get a job but I don’t want to go back to bar work, waitressing,” she says. “I want to actually get a job that I want. But for that to happen, I need experience, so that’s why I’m doing the volunteering.
“Basically, I’m not a scrounger. I’m someone that has worked before, is going to work in the future. Jobseeker’s (Allowance) is for people that are looking for work that they want to do. I’m not like someone that’s going to be on Jobseeker’s for their whole life. Anyone could become unemployed at any moment, and they will go on to Jobseeker’s. It doesn’t change who they are. That’s what it’s there for. It’s for people that have paid tax and are going to pay tax in the future.”
That part about the dole being for people looking for work they want to do isn’t true. While the Jobcentre allows people to look for work in their specialist area for a while, it then tells you to “broaden your job goals”, which means applying for monkey work. Leifer is lucky to have an adviser who lets her get away with this, but maybe not so lucky that she can’t afford to move from a house that is making her ill. It’s sad and frustrating. While George Osborne says young people ought to live with their parents instead of claiming benefits, he doesn’t understand how different life is for people who would have to do that. As much as he likes to portray it this way, housing benefit isn’t a means for people to live it up – in most cases, like Leifer, they’re barely surviving. His plan to scrap housing benefit for under-25s is grossly unfair: it ignores the fact that not every young person has parents willing or able to let them occupy a bedroom, and disadvantages people who, like Leifer, will in all likelihood pay back what they receive in taxes if they’re given the opportunity to get their foot on the ladder.
For people like Leifer, and myself, it’s been a lifeline. And yet, while the political parties tear themselves to pieces over the withdrawal of universal benefits for themselves – child tax-credit and winter fuel allowance – plans to withdraw this universal benefit for the young and needy are cheered in conference halls and opinion pages, just like mandatory-work schemes. As I near the end of my journey, it’s ironic that I find one of the more plausible answers to my questions in a book written by a Tory politician. In 2010 David Willetts, now the universities minister, published The Pinch, subtitled How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – and Why They Should Give It Back. He argues that his generation reaped the rewards of globalisation by taking advantage of cheap foreign labour, filling up pension pots and buying up large swathes of available housing, and then left their children to fight it out in the cracks of a crumbling empire. It’s one of the most infuriating analyses of the current situation, not because it’s packed full of lies and misrepresentations like a lot of government literature, but because it’s true. Of course, it’s based on a selective memory of recent history. Willetts should, for instance, have mentioned something about getting a free university education himself, then becoming the universities minister and trebling fees to £9,000 a year. Talk about hoisting the ladder up after you’ve climbed it.
When I started writing about unemployment for Dazed Digital under the pseudonym Emus Clod, I wanted to give people subjected to this kind of intergenerational bullying a say. And I wanted them to stop blaming themselves. Because as much as the Tories like to point and laugh at our sorry excuse for an opposition party when they bring up crazy ideas like social justice in parliament – like cartoon bullies – it’s no laughing matter. It’s rewriting the social contract without giving us a place at the negotiating table. For so many young people, the nearest thing to having a say was voting Liberal Democrat in 2010; then burning effigies of Nick Clegg when he turned out to be full of shit; and then rioting for reasons we’re told have nothing to do with being systematically ignored. As I see it, the fact that the Jobcentres are busier than a few years ago isn’t the biggest problem here. Our youth unemployment is mild compared with places like Spain and Greece. It’s the fact that the whole system, from the government down to Jobcentre advisers, treats a large section of the population as an attitude to be changed. They’re a blight to be cured, or if they really do continue to resist, a voice to be ignored. The people in charge would just love it if everybody caved in and consented to mandatory work, got themselves a job they hated and became good little taxpayers to help funnel money into the banks’ bailout fund. Let’s not give them the satisfaction of seeing us do it.
This article first appeared in Dazed and Confused.