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Stop stigmatising the unemployed: the problem is the lack of decent jobs

Young workers don't need education in "turning up in time" - they need job opportunities that pay at least a living wage.

A man stands outside the Jobcentre Plus on January 18, 2012 in Trowbridge, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Both a Tory minister and a Labour shadow have this week made the latest in a long line of deeply worrying, stigmatising comments about the unemployed that show a profound failure to understand the nature of our job market, what young people in particular have to offer, and what employers are failing to offer workers.

Today, Esther McVey, employment minister, told the Daily Mail that young people should "take a job in Costa [coffee shops]" where they could learn to "turn up on time", and from there build up their career. She complained that they were less qualified than immigrant workers. McVey’s comments show a profound lack of knowledge of both our young jobseekers and of the current labour market. Huge numbers of highly qualified young people are desperately seeking jobs, but if they take jobs well below their training and skills, this can blight their future career chances. A year in Costa is unlikely to prepare you for a graduate-level job – it will more likely sentence you to a life of low pay, insecurity and non-development of your career.

Yet young people are applying for these jobs anyway, despite what McVey says. The most famous example is the new Costa in Nottingham, that saw 1,700 people applying for eight jobs. In a case like that, getting or not getting a job can be little more than a lottery, with odds just about as bad as the national one. Young workers don't need education in "turning up in time" - they need job opportunities that pay at least a living wage, are not zero-hours contracts, and that offer a chance of building a career - in short, jobs that you can build a life on.

But there’s little sign that the Labour Party grasps these facts either. Earlier this week, Rachel Reeves, yes, she of the "we’ll be tougher on benefits than the Tories" infamy, came out to say that Labour would force unemployed people to take tests in English and computer skills, and force them on to courses if they failed, at the pain of losing their benefits.

Providing training for people who need it is, of course, a good general principle, but to do so under these circumstances is a recipe for inducing humiliation and penury. Imagine the 50-something former manual worker, who perhaps missed out on reading and writing at school due to undiagnosed dyslexia. Will the kind of course likely to be offered – based on Labour’s track record, by some delightful company like Atos or G4S – provide adequate for his or her needs, or will it leave them so humiliated that they give up and lose their benefits? And will this level of assistance really help them get a new job?

And it implies that Labour believes, as the Tories clearly do, that unemployment is an individual failing, not a reflection of the state and nature of the economy. The fact that we now have a level of long-term youth unemployment matching that of John Major’s time doesn’t reflect on our young people – it reflects on the failure of our job market to provide appropriate employment.

While young people with parents who can afford to support them do years of unpaid internships in search of the elusive professional jobs, those without that backing are forced to take what they can get – damned to professing passionate devotion to serving coffee when they’re qualified to be filling professional roles. And as workers with PhDs, master’s degrees and bachelor's degrees fill coffee-serving jobs, those with A-levels struggle, and those without are pushed into hopelessness. And what’s to become of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s, who find themselves pushed out of jobs and in desperate need of new ones?

We need to transform our economy so it works for us, rather than us slaving away for the untaxed profits of giant multinationals, and to pay for the recklessness of the fraud-ridden, and still unreformed, financial sector. To create the varied, skilled range of jobs we need, the government should follow the re-shoring trend and adopt policies to bring manufacturing and food production back to Britain. It needs to be forcing multinational companies to pay taxes, and provide decent pay and conditions, which will widen the opportunities for small business and cooperatives to thrive, and create strong local economies that see money circulating within towns and cities, rather than swooshing out of them to London or the most convenient tax haven.

And in the meantime, we should stop blaming the unemployed for the fact that our society has failed to provide them with decent paying, reasonably secure jobs that they can build a life on.