Socialist Worker

Is there a generation that has ‘never worked’?

Issue No. 2220

The government and the right wing media are stepping up their war on people who claim benefits, claiming that there are millions of “workshy scroungers” living off the hard work of the rest of the population.

So when official Department for Work and Pensions statistics last week showed that there are 1.4 million people in the UK who have never worked in their lives, the Sun and the Daily Mail revelled in the figure.

They claimed it confirmed everything that they have been arguing for years—that “welfare dependency” is becoming “endemic” in some areas.

Somehow, despite the economic crisis and public sector cuts causing massive job losses, we are supposed to believe that anyone who’s out of work just isn’t trying hard enough.

Fatcat bosses and politicians sit in their offices, doing nothing useful at all—all the while claiming that it’s us who are “lazy”!

The Tories and the media take no account of the real reasons why some people do not work. But socialists should.

The figures include 600,000 young people between 16 and 24, who are also not in education. These are the victims of the jobs wasteland created by the economic crisis of the last few years.

And they also show that the devastation wrought on working class people by Thatcherism is still being felt.

Some 800,000 of those who have never worked are between the ages of 25 and 49. Many of them will have come of working age in the 1980s and 1990s—an era of mass unemployment that many have never recovered from.

A look at the recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) report “Work and worklessness among households 2010” helps us understand some other reasons why people are not working.

Factors outside of people’s control—such as the fact that they are ill or disabled, or looking after those who are—have a defining effect on their lives.

Some 841,000 households are workless because all members of the household are sick, injured or disabled.

And more than 300,000 households have no one in work because all their members were looking after relatives.

The number of people living in households where everyone worked was down 240,000 to 20 million—showing the dramatic effect of the economic crisis.

So the real reasons for unemployment haves nothing to do with “laziness”.

The aim of the Tories’ rhetoric about “scroungers” is to get those who do have jobs to blame those who don’t for all society’s problems.

We are supposed to see unemployed people as different to people who “pay their way”.

They put around stories of people saying there’s no point in working because they get more on benefits, claiming this means benefits need to be cut. But really all it shows is how incredibly low-paid most of the jobs on offer are.

Their concept of an “underclass” conjures up the Victorian image of the “undeserving poor”. This idea has influenced the wave of welfare reforms we have seen under New Labour and the Tories.


But poverty and unemployment are not things that only threaten a small proportion of the population.

The whole working class is at risk because of the way capitalism works—unemployment can suddenly spike, pushing millions who had thought they were secure into a life of poverty.

An important 2002 report called Poverty and the Welfare State: Dispelling the Myths, by social policy expert Paul Spicker, attacked the notion of an underclass and “welfare dependency”.

It found that certain groups—such as young people, those out of work, or pensioners—are the most likely to be poor. But it said that no group “is immune to poverty”.

In the 1990s, 60 percent of the population spent at least one year in the bottom 30 percent of income distribution.

Spicker concluded, “Poverty is not the moral, cultural or social problem of a permanently excluded underclass, but an economic risk that affects everyone.”

The demonisation of those who receive benefits does nothing to address the real problems facing millions. Only a united fight—of workers and the workless—against the system can achieve that.

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Tue 21 Sep 2010, 17:36 BST
Issue No. 2220
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