The lost boys aren’t just in my head

There is a cast of characters I carry around in my head. There is Anna, an addict, heavily made up, in her flat empty of anything save a bed, a TV, a sofa floating above a sea of rubbish, an overflowing ashtray and half a bottle of whisky. Most of all, it is empty of her children, parcelled out by social services to various members of Anna's family: "I love them to bits but I don't want to see them, the way I am."

Then there is Carl, 21 years old and so frustrated he recently stabbed himself in the leg. His mother, who has Carl's six younger siblings to take care of, is depressed and in tears. She wants her husband back; he was banned from seeing the family after threatening to set them on fire. She can't throw Carl out as he has been bailed to his home address. Carl is screaming that he wants his own house: "All I need is a letter and I can get out of this shithole." "How can you be a priority?" his mother replies. "You don't work, you don't sign on, you don't do anything." Small children cling to her legs and keep wary eyes on Carl.

And there is Shane, fat and 14. I try to teach him a few words of Spanish, in order to help his teacher with a class which is just crowd control. "Fat ginger baby," taunts a classmate. "Look at his tits." Shane doesn't want to learn, and he is aggressive, in that "You gonna make me?" way. If I had been on my own with him I would have been afraid. He claims his ambition is to go to jail. "My friend's brother went. They got tellies in there."

Fancy flights

They are like a permanent focus group: characters who persuaded me that writing about social policy for a decade hadn't led to any understanding of the alcoholic with a dozen social workers, one of them assigned just to help him keep his keys safe; the mother who bought her son vodka because he threatened to smash the house up if she didn't; the young father desperate for a glimpse of his children who had been ordered by their mother to call another man "Dad". As I read learned papers about the future of welfare, or listen to politicians brandish their latest ideas, I call on Carl, Anna and Shane in my head and ask them what they think. Academia wouldn't stand for it, but I think they help, a useful corrective to flights
of fancy about "green" welfare states or well-intentioned announcements on reskilling.

Last week I called on Carl. The unemployment figures that had just come out were being hailed as a pre-election boost for Labour, with a surprise decline in the claimant count. Carl doesn't claim benefits. He doesn't do anything (although he did, at least fleetingly, have a gun). Carl is "economically inactive"; the number of people defined as inactive has increased by well over a million in three decades, tripling among men, and rising fast among the under-24s. In the quarter to January they rose by 149,000. Many are students, but others have just slipped out of the system altogether. I have met these young men, hostile and alienated, all over the place. "Why did I stab myself?" Carl taunts his mother. "Because you were fucking my head."

Hide and seek

We're not even sure how many young men make up this alienated cadre. They are the least likely to register with the census, partly due to the couple penalty in the benefit rules.

Academics also tend to find themselves interviewing women and not men when they conduct studies. It's because of the way they recruit, through community centres, GPs or local networks, all of them dominated by women. Motherhood wraps young women back into society, through Sure Start, health visitors, schools.

New service-sector jobs are better suited to female "soft" skills, and the flexible hours suit motherhood, too. Male working-age employment was 95 per cent in 1960 and female was 49 per cent; today, male employment is 75 per cent and female 69 per cent, a clear 20-point switch. Each year they creep closer to parity, and this year more than most, because recessions hit male employment harder: the Office for National Statistics reports that each time the economic cycle takes a dive, male employment rates fail to recover afterwards to pre-recession levels. They are down 3.7 points on two years ago, while female employment is down a far lower 0.7 points. Not wanted as fathers and not needed as workers - it isn't looking good for Carl and Shane.

Academics describe these young men as working in the "informal" or "illegal" econo­mies. For a lad with no income, Carl wears some pretty expensive gear. His younger brother is thought to be involved in a scam - selling free leaflets at an old people's home for £1 each. But he isn't "economically inactive" yet, because he is only 12.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!