Could there be a public value to unemployment?
29/07/09 Jonathan Birdwell questions whether full employment and a robust sense of community could be mutually exclusive goals.
To be unemployed at this point in time is for many a victim’s badge, often worn wearily. “I am a living casualty of the global recession,” it reads. But could there be a silver lining to the rising tide of unemployment? Could the sudden “gift” of free time be used productively in the community, provided of course that individual and family basics are taken care of through the welfare state?
In the course of speaking to many elderly people through fieldwork, I’ve often been subjected to paeans for yesteryears when a sense of community was almost palpable. What hastened the slow death of community? According to some it was the influx of immigrants in the 1960s, 70s and 90s and the consequent breakdown of shared backgrounds, values, languages, and religions. Yet, even if these things make fostering a sense of community easier, they are neither sufficient nor necessary.
I think a large part of the answer is the death of leisure – the fact that we’ve crammed our lives with individual pursuits, work, family, friends, ambitions, and blogs. The more we work (and indeed, we are all working more these days), the less energy we have to devote to the demands of a robust civic society. Could it not be then that the goal of full employment would lead to a hollowing out of civil society, of community organisations and advocates? Perhaps then the two pillars are mutually exclusive: aim for full employment and you may just undermine ‘community engagement’.
Gordon Brown, perhaps the man most visibly at risk of losing his job, recently released his Government’s legislative strategy entitled Building Britain’s Future which, among other things, expressed the twin goals of increasing employment and community engagement. For the first time in the history of the British welfare state, individuals on benefits (NEETs under 25) for over a year will be forced to either take a job or lose their benefits. The profile of these individuals probably makes them less likely to make good use of their free time, but the shift is significant.
Our research into the experiences of social housing residents reveals that a number of unemployed residents spent their time as unpaid carers for family, friends and neighbours, or as community organizers and advocates. They were community wardens, organisers of the resident association, leaders of youth clubs. To nudge them into work could have the effect of decreasing the public value that their free time allows them to create.
This is of course not to say that we should look upon the rise of unemployment with satisfaction and optimism. It is rather to point to a potential contradiction within policy debates: that the dual goals of full employment and a rejuvenated and robust civic society / sense of community just might be mutually exclusive. It is also to argue against making broad generalizations about the “idle unemployed”. Many unemployed or economically inactive people play a vital role in their community, and the value they create for their neighbours and their community should not be ignored.