Conveniently for those who like to understand things through false dichotomies, and frustratingly for everyone else, the government has come up with a narrative that differentiates between the “strivers” and "shirkers" in British society. "Strivers" are those who struggle to provide for themselves by working like slaves and “shirkers” are those who struggle to provide for themselves because they're too busy wanking on the couch, cackling as they drag the rest of us down into their mire of jobless largesse.
However, this idea is revealed as fallacy when you look at the figures, which show that even if every unemployed person in the country spent their every waking hour looking for a job, they wouldn’t be able to find one. There simply aren't enough to go around – there's no hidden well of endless jobs that someone has been sneakily hiding from us. The latest Labour Market Survey showed that while there are nearly half a million vacant positions, there are 2.5 million unemployed who want them. Not to mention the 7 million underemployed making the stats look a bit nicer as they wallow in a personal purgatory.
Despite this, Chancellor George Osborne used his spending review at the end of June to add another 144,000 public sector workers to the unemployment list. He gave those who are already out of work a kicking too, by making them wait a week before claiming benefits rather than the three days they'd been used to. For good measure, jobseekers must now attend the dole office every week rather than fortnightly, which, if we're lucky, will merely be a logistical nightmare.
Of those new jobs that are out there, 75 percent pay peanuts. Feel like complaining? It'll cost you. From now on, if you want to take your beef with your boss to an Employment Tribunal – a service that's been free since the Victorians were employing kids to huff chimney soot all day – you'll have to pay for it up front.
The day after the spending review, I heard about a jobs fair in Watford. The idea of a jobs fair is a novel one. "Fair" is a word I would usually associate with a) fun, b) equality or c) justice, none of which spring to mind when I consider the UK jobs market. Then there was the fact that it was organised by a Tory MP – was this just political PR, as suggested by the numerous references to the MP on the event’s literature and signage, or a rare case of a politician doing something practical to help his constituents?
In my mind's eye I'd imagined the jobs fair to look like one of those abandoned fairgrounds you see in films, the kind that have lain dormant for a decade since some horrible accident shut them down. Instead, what greeted me was a busy conference hall with expensive looking carpets and modern light fittings.
In front of me swarmed a sea of people from various walks of life, all united by their lack of gainful employment. Some wore suits and marched briskly from table to table, handing out laminated CVs. Others shuffled around looking uncomfortable. Giggling teenagers in crumpled shirts just out of sixth form were followed by stern mothers snapping at them to “be serious”.
The effect of the government's rhetoric became clear soon after I arrived, in the form of James. "I don’t like the idea of jobseeker's and people who sit on benefits for the sake of it," he told me. "I’m so opposed to it that I end up putting myself in even more debt because I try to avoid signing on to jobseeker's allowance. I just picked up a leaflet about debt management because it really has hit rock bottom for me."
Then I met Michael, 22, George, 17 and Rachael, 19. They seemed fairly representative of young people looking for work today. Michael was hopeful that he could find a job that was in any way related to the Chemistry degree he'd just graduated from, but was considering sales as a plan B. Underemployed Rachael told me that she was on the hunt for a full-time job "that I actually want”. It was as if she didn’t realise how lucky she is that, thanks to people even poorer then her scanning through burgers as “onions” on self-checkout machines, her 12 hours a week on a supermarket till haven't been completely stolen by a robot.
Poor George had been on the hunt for a year. How had that year been? “Hard.” How many jobs had he applied for? “So many.” Is there anything out there? “Nothing at all.” What kind of work was he looking for? “Anything. I just want money. That’s it.” Was there anything he wouldn’t do? “No.”
Perhaps his years working in a warehouse had jaded him, or maybe it was because he was old enough to remember a time when bosses would jitter at the mere mention of industrial action, but Gerry Norwood seemed to lack that winning combination of fantastical optimism, acute desperation and masochistic subservience required to make it in the modern jobs market. Since being laid-off he has been offered temp work but, “They wanted me to do shifts at 5AM. The buses around here don’t start until seven or eight in the morning. So what you earn you would be spending on a taxi fair – it’s stupid,” he moaned, ungratefully.
Young and unemployed? No prospects, qualifications or contacts? Not to worry, here’s Richard Harrington, your local Tory MP, vice chairman of the Conservative Party and Oxford alumni, talking to you on your level about how he’s “been there”. “This event is nothing to do with politics,” he told a room full of desperate and impressionable young people of voting age.
For the purposes of this article, I had been hoping that he would be an archetypal Tory toff, the kind of ranting officer-class loon that makes you understand why it's not George Osborne they keep hidden away from TV cameras out in the shires. Alas, according to his speech he did seem to have some fairly legit real-life experience, having worked as a cab driver and a market stallholder before becoming a wealthy businessman like the rest of his parliamentary colleagues.
“Get an objective and don’t let anyone say you can’t achieve it,” he said.
Unfortunately, Richard’s message was somewhat at odds with the one being conveyed by some of the advisors at his event.
“Some of them are saying, ‘Give up on your dream,’” David (pictured right) told me.
“Some of them have been saying, ‘There are no jobs, good luck with that!'" added James, who is now recalibrating his dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer, looking instead for plumbing apprenticeships.
Of course, hardheaded cynicism from employers was often matched by the job seekers themselves. He may look like a relentless go-getter with a can-do attitude, but Chaka here confessed that he was merely going through the motions. He told me he'd been unemployed for about a year, using his time living at home to gain the experience he needs to get his dream job as an Android app designer. I asked him if this was really the best place to look for opportunities in app design, since as far as I could tell, there were absolutely no stalls relating to that in the hall. “No,” he replied matter-of-factly, admitting that he was here on pain of losing dole money. “I’m only here because I’m on a work programme and they made us come today. It’s a waste of my time.”
This is Paul Jenkins, who dubs himself a “job search expert”, grinning maniacally at a room full of people in a seminar about how to get back into work when you’re over 50. When his talk began, it became clear that being insanely upbeat was kind of his MO, as he said things like “there are even jobs in Spain”, a country where more than a quarter of the population are out of work.
His key advice was that “nothing positive ever comes from negative thinking” and “the biggest reason most people don’t get jobs is that they don’t apply”, which was just about vague enough to be impossible to disprove. Unalloyed positivity comes at a price, though. According to his website, it’ll cost you £950 if you want Paul to re-write your CV for you, or £97.50 for an hour-long chat over the phone to improve your job-seeking prospects.
Then I caught up for a chat with Richard Harrington, the Tory MP who, in case you hadn't noticed, had set up the jobs fair. After he had assured me once more that this event had absolutely nothing to do with politics, I asked for his opinions about the world of work. He seemed less upbeat than he had been in his earlier speech, telling me that, “I would like to see people thinking that we live in a society where sometimes you have to accept a job you don’t want or weren’t qualified for.”
Then I asked him whether, rather than demonising the unemployed, the government could make work a more appealing prospect by, for a start, not spanking workers’ rights quite so hard.
“It’s very peripheral, that stuff,” he said dismissively.
As for the simple maths about the number of people who want jobs versus the much smaller number of jobs available, he admitted that the numbers were “indisputable”, but added, “Watford is not Liverpool. In Watford if you want a job, I’m not saying you can pick and choose, but there are opportunities available.”
The jobs fair’s literature claimed that there were over 1,000 jobs and apprenticeships up for grabs on the day. Richard revised that down to 700 when I spoke to him. With around 4,000 people coming through the door, I thought that figure spoke for itself – at least 3,300 people would be going home empty handed. (Somebody offering ten paid internships told me she had had well over 100 applications.) As well as that, there were plenty of organisations offering training and volunteer opportunities rather than actual jobs. When they did have positions available, they often came with caveats. There were lots of jobs going for those willing to uproot their entire lives and move elsewhere for an entry-level position, but those too attached to their homes, families and communities were out of luck. For instance, a construction firm had 139 vacancies – but only four or five of those were anywhere near Watford.
One warehouse employment agency were offering people jobs with one of the country’s leading online retailers. Weirdly, though, they didn’t want me to report it. Suffice to say it was a retailer that avoids tax and has been no stranger to labour controversies – controversies like using a bunch of neo-Nazi security guards to keep its immigrant workforce under control in Germany.
Then there was the temporary seasonal work. And the endless offers of zero-hours contracts – the type that see part-time workers paid an average of £6 less per hour than their full-time colleagues by billionaires like Mike "Cockney Mafia" Ashley. Even this government has a suspicion that zero-hours contracts are unfair, with Business Secretary Vince Cable set to launch an investigation into them. But they were more than welcome at the jobs fair.
Richard had told me that he thought it was important for unemployed people to be treated with "dignity", which is why he got sponsorship to make sure that the event took place in, "the best venue in Watford. This is a proper place with carpets. It’s not a dusty old community hall with a couple of trestle tables and black boards."
In truth though, to anyone who'd gone along looking for work, it must have felt like rocking up at Byron and getting served a Big Mac. The duplicity of the event summed up the nature of the job market today – the Tory government's aspirational rhetoric encourages everyone to believe that they're not an exploited call centre worker, but a temporarily embarrassed Duncan Bannatyne in the making. It's easy to see why the "strivers" who buy into this myth would despise the "shirkers" who don't, or who do but couldn't get that call centre position, or that zero-hours contract at Sports Direct, or that job driving a forklift truck around a warehouse for Amazon.
In truth, the only reason the government have reached for such divisive language is that they know that all types of people are swimming around in the shit. Look at those I ran into at the jobs fair – young and old, qualified and unqualified, in credit and in debt, wannabe aeronautical engineers and would-be app designers. It seemed a fairly decent cross-section of the job seeker's market to me, yet I came away feeling bewildered not by the variety of people in attendance, but by the array of methods that seem to have been devised to screw those people over.
At best, the strivers versus shirkers dichotomy is an over-simplified take on a complex situation. At worst, it is socially injurious propaganda that seeks to remove the blame for the economic lull from the government and big business, and reassign it to Britain's unemployed.
Follow Simon on Twitter: @SimonChilds13
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