Page last updated at 06:37 GMT, Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Britain's jobless: who cares?

Woman at home

By Paula Dear
BBC News

Unemployment is back. The economic downturn means the issue has again climbed to the surface of the political and news agenda. But for millions of people it never went away.

Has British society been ignoring the real plight of the jobless in recent times?

Our series on joblessness will explore the lives of Britain's non-workers. How did they get there, how do they feel and how do they get by?

The unemployed are portrayed as social outcasts who don't share the moral and ethical values of the rest of us
Dr David Fryer, Stirling University

Those losing their jobs now are joining millions who have already been out of work long term, who want to work but for many reasons are not searching, or who have been lurching between insecure jobs and joblessness for years.

The number of unemployed now stands at 1.8m, but that headline figure tells only part of the story. On top of the unemployed, a further 8m people of working age in the UK are not working and are categorised as "economically inactive".

Of that number some 2.2m - nearly all women - are looking after home and family, 2m are students and a further 2m are long-term sick.

Nearly 40,000 people are listed as "discouraged workers" and some 760,000 people are categorised simply as "other" in figures that chart the reasons for people's economic inactivity.

Of the 8m inactive people, more than 2m say they want to work, but are not currently able to or have given up seeking a job. Meanwhile, the number of job vacancies in the UK has dropped below 600,000.

No one works in Elizabeth Malcolm's house (Photo by Phil Coomes)
Our series asks, who are Britain's jobless?
Interviews with five people who are out of work published on the BBC News website in December and January.

There is concern among some experts that ignoring the core issues and pressurising jobless people - for example with welfare reforms - will not only be a waste of time given the number of jobs available, but could further damage the mental wellbeing of individuals already demoralised.

"If you have four million or so people chasing a few hundred thousand jobs, it goes without saying that putting pressure on the unemployed to look harder is not going to work," says psychologist Dr David Fryer, of Stirling University.

In the past few years it has been harder to get funding for research on unemployment, giving the impression people felt the problem had gone away, adds Dr Fryer.

And what media coverage there has been often portrays the jobless as being to blame for their problems, even to be envied in the way we might envy the "idle rich", he adds.

"In general the media has not done unemployment a service. The unemployed are portrayed as social outcasts who don't share the moral and ethical values of the rest of us."

'In denial'

Some people commit benefit fraud - with at least 2.6bn lost to fraud and errors last year - and tales of cheating lap dancers and fighting-fit football referees claiming sickness benefits make for popular copy.

But, says New Policy Institute (NPI) Director Peter Kenway, if we start by believing that the vast majority are telling the truth when they say they want to work, then we have a big problem on our hands.

An upcoming annual NPI report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concludes that the progress regarding most of those wanting, but lacking, work - which was seen in the first half of New Labour's rule - flattened out in 2004. In the case of young adults unemployment went up, he says.

Dr Kenway added that he believed the UK was heading into a recession after a period of several years in which the labour market had at best been steady, rather than strong.

"The political class is still in complete denial that this unemployment issue is coming back with a vengeance.

Employers will pick the freshest flowers and the others will get more and more wilted
Prof Alan Manning, LSE

"And you cannot say the whole responsibility for this lies with the would-be workers.

"There's a strange flaw in government reasoning that if you somehow got all these people out and plonked them onto the labour market, the jobs would just appear."

Until the credit crunch bit there was less attention on the long-term unemployed because numbers had genuinely fallen, says Professor Alan Manning, of the London School of Economics (LSE).

"But if you are one of those people that remains long-term unemployed that's not much comfort."

Like the rising tide lifting all boats, "the view was that the way to help those people was by having the labour market generally doing well", he says.

He predicts that with rising unemployment, sympathy levels will also rise, as more people have direct or indirect experience of joblessness.

More sympathy but not more opportunities, he says, because the situation for the long-term unemployed is likely to worsen as more qualified recently redundant people flood the market.

"The analogy of the flower shop rings true - employers will pick the freshest flowers and the others will get more and more wilted."


Last week's pre-Budget report put much emphasis on addressing the plight of the newly unemployed, but ministers do acknowledge the ongoing "scar" of long-term unemployment.

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell told MPs last week the government would "do everything we can to bring those who have been out of a job for some time back closer to the world of work".

And welfare reforms have been brought in, with more on the table, which the government says will tackle some of the more entrenched areas of joblessness.

The problem, some argue, is that leaders are ignoring the reality of life for the unemployed, and the societal ills that lie behind joblessness and deprivation.

Last year the government ploughed millions into paying for more psychologists to treat people for depression and anxiety, in an attempt to get more people back to work.

Working with an individual means they then compete more effectively against another unemployed person - it can never do anything other than reorder the queue
Dr David Fryer

Research over decades has consistently shown that joblessness leads to mental ill health.

For people like Drs Fryer and Kenway, putting the emphasis on treating individuals for their "deficiency" in finding work, is damaging.

Dr Fryer is part of the Community Psychology movement, currently small in the UK, but a bigger force in other parts of the world - both rich and poor.

He and fellow campaigners believe social change, not treatment for individuals, is the only way to deal with the distress caused by material inequality, poverty and joblessness.

All the psychologists in the world could never "treat it better" unless the root problems were solved, they say.

"Working with an individual person just means they then compete more effectively against another unemployed person. But it can never do anything other than reorder the queue," adds Dr Fryer.

"Society has become more individualist. And clinical treatment is individualist, which fits conveniently with this idea that all ills are related to the individual."

He likens treating someone depressed because they are unemployed to giving therapy to a woman who is beaten at home then returns each night to an unaltered situation.

"All you are doing," says Dr Fryer, "is making them think differently about being punched."

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