Mired in a mancession

The signs are that getting women into work creates growth and further employment . . . for other wom

It is school report time and, as usual, everyone has done brilliantly. Children never fail at anything at state schools. Success is rewarded and so is mere participation; failure is never mentioned. This means that it is impossible for parents to tell how their child is performing. The idea of having to work harder in order to progress is alien to the children: it doesn't matter if you don't do it right, or well, just as long as you've vaguely tried to do it. I know that educationalists will disagree with me, but I think this is wrong.

I once worked at a school where I was told off for helping a six-year-old (at his request) to spell "colour". Nobody's spelling was corrected at that school. When the children had official test papers to do, they couldn't read the instructions. Which didn't matter, because they simply copied the answers from the most advanced pupil on each table anyway (this is called "child-centred learning").

It isn't a mystery why so many teenagers leave school still unable to read, write or do basic maths. It's because nobody has forced them to learn. "Sometimes, I think we should spend less time understanding and more time teaching," a head of special needs at one secondary school said to me. We know so well why children have trouble learning - difficulties at home, dyslexia or attention disorders - that we use these as excuses for our failure to teach.


I was reading Harriet Sergeant's Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet on the underachievement of black Caribbean and white working-class boys. Sergeant quoted a black car mechanic in his fifties: "In the Caribbean, we were taught the three Rs but that's now gone out of the window. Black and white kids born in this country leave primary school and they can't read and write. After that, everything breaks down." Caribbean nurseries teach letters: "r" for "reen" (or rain). English nurseries teach "sustained shared thinking" and "respecting diversity".

Sergeant tells a familiar and sad tale through the eyes of teenagers she has met, such as Tuggy Tug and Mash, who make money dealing drugs and robbing people in Brixton: a tale of boys who are not able to read by seven, feel humiliated in lessons, begin to misbehave, and arrive at secondary school already years behind their reading peers. It's hard then for the secondary system to help them catch up and they go truant, misbehave or are excluded.

These are the unemployed young males who Frank Field wants the government to target with back-to-work schemes. In a speech on 29 June that had mothers on Mumsnet cheering and Guardian readers jeering, the "poverty tsar" said ministers might consider focusing less on getting mothers of young children back to work and more on the absent fathers in the shadows. It was provocatively phrased but it wasn't an unsympathetic speech. We need, Field suggested, to shine a light on "the unmarried father who is often young, unemployed and often unemployable and who is unskilled - and the way society has changed has made him redundant. The position he once held as breadwinner has been taken over by taxpayers."

Field is half right: you shouldn't be forcing mothers of very young children to work, but it is important to enable them to do so if they wish. The trouble at the moment is that those mothers who do work are the well-educated ones, not the uneducated and poorest who could probably do with the money. It's all very well for me to write columns saying that it's good for mothers of young children to go back to work, for social reasons and self-esteem as well as financial self-interest; but it probably feels different if that work is putting together airline meals on a production line overnight, for a wage that doesn't cover the costs of your childcare.

The practical problem, however, with Field's comments is that there aren't any jobs for these young men to do (even if they weren't illiterate and unemployable). The male "position as breadwinner" wasn't "taken over by taxpayers" for ideological reasons, but out of necessity: he was unemployed and his child was starving. New service-sector jobs are better suited to female skills, with the result that male employment in the UK has fallen 20 points in 50 years while female employment has risen by the same amount. In a few years' time, they will reach parity. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has called this recession a "mancession": the number of men in employment, it notes, is falling ten times more sharply than the number of women.

Just the job

So where will Tuggy Tug's job come from? The Conservatives' economic forecasts rely on a prediction that the private sector will make up for public-sector cuts by creating more than two million jobs in the next five years. Which part of the private sector is going to create jobs for all these young men? Retailing and services provide work more suited to women (besides, growth in services is slowing). New manufacturing will be hi-tech, low-labour-cost. Construction? That's a lot of builders. Using the state to provide first jobs for men, as Field proposes, isn't an idea I can see the Tories embracing as they try to cut administrative costs.

Getting women into work, on the other hand, creates new jobs by itself. Gøsta Esping-Andersen, the hugely respected Danish welfare state academic, has described female employment as the new Keynesian trigger in advanced economies. He has calculated that an additional 15 net service jobs are created for every 100 women who convert themselves into employees: someone has to do the childcare and the shopping, or cook for Granny. The trouble is that, without a social revolution, that "someone" probably isn't going to be male. And, to be honest, Granny probably wouldn't want Tuggy Tug in her house anyway.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask