Most of the UK’s successful creative people were probably once a NEET – meaning someone under 25 who is not in education, employment or training. Tom Jones was famously revealed as workshy by his Jobcentre records before going on to become one of the most successful recording artists the UK has ever seen. Top pop star George Michael even rapped about his experience of unemployment early in his career. And he turned out all right. Mostly.
There are just under one million NEETs in the UK, but most of them don’t stay that way for long. Few make a perfectly seamless transition from education to work, so almost every 16-25 year old will have been a NEET at some point. Around 15% of NEETs are currently unable to work due to sickness or disability. Some of them will be in hospital. Many NEETs are mothers with very young children or babies. Others will be posh kids, dicking about on gap years or frittering away trust funds. Prince Harry was a NEET for a while. The term isn’t very helpful to describe an economic or social group. But it serves its real purpose, to smear the young as lazy or feckless.
Only around half of all NEETs are unemployed, meaning on unemployment benefits, or actively seeking work. That’s still about half a million and the reason for this is because there are not enough jobs. In a highly competitive labour market the young will always suffer as they are forced to compete with older, more skilled workers.
Employing anyone comes with a risk attached. This is one of the costs of doing business. Employers have sought to push this cost onto the tax payer and unemployed people themselves by operating government backed ‘try before you buy’ style workfare schemes. It is not uncommon for young people to be expected to stack shelves in supermarkets for two months without pay. This would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. Now both of the main political parties support this kind of grotesque exploitation.
The reason this situation has emerged is the constant bleating from employers that the latest generation are so lazy they are virtually unemployable. Yet young people are working longer for less money than they have in decades. It is a transparent lie, as is the ludicrous slur that young people need teaching how to get out of bed in the mornings – kids have to do that almost every day of their life until they leave school.
Another advantage of bosses claiming the young are lazy and unskilled is that it also allows them to dump some of their training costs onto the tax payer via the education system. McDonalds would have schools teaching kids how to fry their fucking hamburgers if they thought they could get away with it. The entire education system, from primary schools to universities, is becoming based on the needs of business, not learning for its own sake. And this too has happened because of endless whining from bosses that this generation is the worst yet. Until the next one who they will tell us are even worse.
The truth, as Tom Jones and George Michael shows, is that NEETs are one of the most valuable assets that a society can possess. Young people, left to their own devices and even on meagre resources, can do incredible things – and this does not just apply to the young. From Harry Potter to Glastonbury Festival, great cultural institutions would almost certainly never have emerged without a functioning social security system. Young unemployed people already carry out huge amounts of unpaid work, as genuine volunteers, looking after children or acting as carers for older relatives. Many work on their own intiative, organising gigs, making music, fucking about with computer programmes or making youtube videos that hundreds of thousands of people enjoy. This form of unpaid work created the UK’s once thriving music industry. In the age of user generated content, young people with time on their hands are now driving technology and online entertainment.
A society with any common sense would not just recognise this vital, energised and creative resource but cherish it. It would accept that young people themselves are the best placed to decide their own destinies in the future they will create. That they need and deserve time, space and opportunities to be able to plan their lives for themselves.
This would require a higher education system that is flexible and accessible, not one that forces young people to take on eye-watering debt. It would mean providing genuine training, in real skills, not shoddy workfare schemes or so-called apprenticeships that are little more than an excuse for employers to dodge the minimum wage. It means allowing young people the time to explore their creativity if they wish, and providing funding for them to do so. A society like this would trust its young people, not fear them. And it would pay them a fucking wage if they are working for an employer.
Instead the opposite is taking place. The young are demonised as lazy who need to be punished with forced work and benefit sanctions. What is fast emerging is a kind of state-planned employment market, where Jobcentres decide what work young people will do and if they refuse they are punished with poverty. That work is almost always low paid and insecure, and as most normal people if not politicians know, it is easy to get trapped in a job that leaves you so exhausted and demotivated that you end up not looking for anything else. Bogus Traineeships, Apprenticeships and workfare are de-skilling the young, the opposite of their claimed intention.
Of course not all young people are perfect. There’s some proper little bastards out there, often as a result of broken or traumatic lives. But they are a tiny minority, and the very worst thing you can do to someone on the edge of a criminal lifestyle is stop their benefits. These kinds of young people will not be incentivised by benefit sanctions to take up low paid work. Not when there’s yuppies to be mugged. Take away the social security system for this group and you create a small but ferocious outlaw class. There is no shortage of predators who will fill the vacuum created by an absence of any support at all for the troubled, isolated and angry youth.
Both Labour and the Tories are now competing to show who can be tougher at bullying young people off benefits. Both are proposing workfare schemes that are unworkable in practice, there already isn’t enough unpaid work to go round. Both are committed to using brutal benefit sanctions to force the errant young into line. But creating back of the envelope forced work schemes designed to pander to misinformed prejudices about the feckless youth is the politics of the gutter. We will all pay the price in time of their betrayal of our children in the name of a pat on the head from the fucking Daily Mail.
Take part in a day of action at jobcentres across the UK on 25 February 2015 in support of the unemployed activist arrested for supporting a claimant at Arbroath Jobcentre. Details on Boycott Workfare’s website, please spread the word.
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