Cynical, hypocritical and misguided sentiments told the story of David Cameron’s desire to cut back social security for the young at the Conservative Party conference this year. He purported that it is still possible for a 16 year old to “leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for life on benefits” and do all this at the state’s expense.
Here we have a man who is heir to a £30 million fortune, whose parents got him his first internship, and had everything provided on a plate, talking about how other people – young people – don’t have to make an effort to get by in life. A bit ironic really.
But never mind that; what exasperated me most was the fact that it’s a myth. It is simply implausible that you can trot down to the Job Centre on the day you leave school and sign on without a care in the world. The reality is that very few of us actually know anyone who lives like this, but David Cameron seems too out of touch to notice.
If you’re a graduate, though, from a wealthy background and you can’t find proper employment, it’s easy to do a year’s work experience and build your CV. That kind of opportunity isn’t available to most young people. Instead, a US-style workfare programme is being proposed for all those who are unfortunate enough to be unemployed.
We can expect this to fall flat on its face; it will stigmatise people who will later go on to apply for secure work. Not only that, it will turn employment into an unpleasant gravy train which you can’t escape from. After all, it makes it increasingly hard to be at a job interview, or looking for a job, whilst you are working for free for a commercial company in order to put a roof over your head.
As our society is at the moment, the rungs of the social mobility ladder have been broken, and young people are paying a heavy price compared with previous generations. It was easier in the past to become a successful person after leaving school aged 14 in the kind of society where you learn most whilst doing your job, rather than before you’ve had a look in at the world of work.
I could be looking back at a time in which I wasn’t around with rose-tinted spectacles, but it seems to me this kind of system worked (quite literally). In the 1980s, the next generation was mortgaged for the benefit of the incumbents. House prices rocketed and the economy was restructured for the quick-buck, not the long term. Replacing factories and mine pits with call-centres and supermarkets was never going to be a sustainable way of running a country like Britain.
I don’t say that without a particular reason though. Strong parallels can be drawn between then and now. It is perverse that a politician – and the Prime Minister at that – would think that the solution to the high welfare bill created by one million young unemployed people is to sever their right to social security. I’m not the only person who thinks that – it’s just common sense.
Cameron’s talk of training for young people out of work is a nice idea, but it won’t work even if it is a real promise. It will lead to a less mobile workforce, something younger workers are particularly useful for. State education, too, is failing to keep up with the assumed pace of growth. According to the OECD, England is the only country in the developed world where the current generation is less literate than the previous.
To tackle this problem, Michael Gove needs a serious rethink; there needs to be long-overdue investment in education, higher regard for teaching and a whole host of other reforms. You begin to see how this opens up an enormous Pandora’s Box.
Cutting benefits for under-25s seems palatable because some don’t mind the age discrimination. Particularly when you consider that more than half of voters in marginal constituencies like Frome & Somerton are over 55 years old. But it would seem weird if the same rules were applied to over-55s for no apparent reason. Why shouldn’t anyone, for that matter, be in some kind of training or apprenticeship if they can’t find a job?
When David Cameron complains about what is wrong with Britain, you forget that he is the Prime Minister; Cameron can’t take the credit for things going right, but not take the flack when things go wrong. He needs to take some responsibility. The crash of 2007 changed the picture, but a pessimist would argue that for those graduating into austerity and unemployment the worse isn’t over yet. The very least young people need is a government that’s on our side.
By Jake Pitt