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Paths2Work Blogs

Matthew Cooper discusses 'Youth unemployment and entitlement to welfare benefits in the 1930s. Any lessons for 'the new austerity;'

Today’s debate about youth unemployment in policy is often dominated by arguments about the nature of the unemployed themselves. Phrases like ‘the unemployed’ ‘unemployed youth’, the ‘genuine claimant’, or the ‘unemployable’ are socially constructed images and concepts which are crucial to justifying policy. Policy discourses use calculated justifications, oriented towards ideas thought to be widespread and prevalent in society. Classifications of the unemployed are not straightforward descriptions of a population but politicised concepts which enable interventions.

The precarious pathways project is concerned with transitions from education to work and my PhD research, attached to Project 1, is focused on broken transitions. I am examining evidence from the 1930s and the period post 2008 to ask about how policymakers and those who influenced policy framed and understood the problem of youth unemployment and how access to benefits is linked to the ways particular individuals sit in society’s moral order of deserving and undeserving individuals. The thesis will examine the various means available to policy makers to assess individuals against such standards. To do this, my primary object of study will be the conditions of eligibility for and attached to the receipt of benefits. Conditions filter people among classifications based on judgements of who among them the state can reasonably be expected to help. I will give an example of what I mean by this and how it might affect unemployed young people.

After 1934 the systems of relief for the able bodied unemployed were divided into three separate systems: Unemployment Benefit administered by the Ministry of Labour and paid for fixed periods to workers in ‘insured trades’ upon the basis of their payment of contributions when in work; Unemployment Assistance administered by an independent central government body, aiming to provide cover for those whose unemployment benefit had expired but who were judged to be unemployed only due to the economic downturn and ‘normally’ in insured work; and benefits administered by Local Authorities - a system of Public Assistance which was the successor to the old Poor Law, shunned by ‘respectable’ workers as a system for the relief of ‘paupers’.

Looking at these three systems we can see an intention to separate the unemployed against a set of criteria which reflect a vision of the labour market and a measure of moral worth. Measures of past conduct, like the contribution records that determined access to Unemployment Benefit, appeared to value older workers with established work histories. However, there is evidence of policy debate about whether young workers were better excluded from the scheme to protect the contributory principle, or included through relaxation of conditions. On the one hand, there are concerns not to ‘demoralise’ them through introduction to the “bottomless purse of the state” (J.E Bullard, an official of the Unemployment Assistance Board) with many preferring instead that they be made to rely on Public Assistance; on the other, a desire to include them, to allow more control over a potentially problematic social group who it was thought should be within reach of an institution that could maintain or instil discipline.

Measures of current conduct, such as systems of reporting on and monitoring of job search, are well entrenched today in benefits like Jobseekers Allowance. In the 1930s, other means of assessing the applicant’s ‘character’; would include the extent to which their home appeared to be clean and cared for, or by the ‘test and task’ work used under the poor law and its successors. A key question with regard to younger claimants will be whether they were regarded as being under greater suspicion than older claimants or considered with greater sympathy. How then might they have been treated differently as a result? The answers to these questions are to be found buried within the archives of government departments and in the publications of contemporaneous social researchers, politicians and policy-makers and the media. In keeping with the other parts of the precarious pathways project I will be seeking some of these answers in the files of Birmingham’s Public Assistance administrators and others in the files of central government departments. However, although this post has focussed almost entirely on the 1930s, my intention for the overall thesis is also to use 1930s evidence as a source of critical insight into the prevalent discourse on the project of Welfare Reform and to reveal and critically assess the similarities and differences during the 1930s recession and recent and current ways in which young claimants are constructed as a problem for government.

Matthew Cooper, PhD Researcher, Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick

5th of November, 2015


Julian Molina blogs about 'Monitoring the spaces of skills training and participation'

Ambitious plans are underway to form a West Midlands Combined Authority which will include Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Lichfield, four Black Country councils, and three Local Enterprise Partnerships. This new body will have new spending powers in the areas of transport, economic growth, investment and skills, meaning that the provision of some training courses will be dependent upon regionally determined economic priorities. Added to this, last December the then Education Secretary announced plans to establish an employer-led Enterprise and Careers Company. The purported aim of this company is to improve the provision of careers guidance for 12 to 18 year olds by encouraging closer collaboration between schools, colleges and employers.

For students leaving schools and colleges this summer, or those enrolled in neither, acting upon the implications of devolved skill funding may depend on the way that potential pathways are presented by front-line workers, careers advisors, and employability professionals working for or in partnership with local authorities. Whether these pathways are basic maths courses or access to apprenticeship schemes, it remains unclear as to what effect a West Midlands Combined Authority will have on the way that youth participation in education, employment and training is tracked and monitored.

Over the last year I have been interviewing local authority staff, youth outreach workers and careers guidance managers to talk about the way that they organise interventions with NEET cohorts. These staff talk about the pressure of encouraging movements from NEET to EET at a time of public sector retrenchment. Local authorities are currently required to routinely monitor the activities of residents up to the age of 19 or 25 in cases of special educational needs and disabilities. This information is used to produce Annual Activity Surveys and submit regular database updates to the Department for Education through National Client Caseload Information Systems. Local authorities have varied arrangements for organising the collection of this data and prioritising how much attention to give each client on their caseload.

Front-line workers talk about this kind of monitoring and tracking as vacillating between intense and slow periods. These teams draw up priority lists through inputting a client’s profile into risk of NEET indicator tools. They organise tracking sessions where young people, whose status is unknown, are telephoned or visited at home to ask about their current education and employment status. Staff will check whether they can find information about missing clients on regional databases through records of recent contacts logged by other outreach workers. Some talk about their attempts to build trust with young people and emphasise the significant work it takes to convince clients to even step out of the house. Some clients will prefer not to meet in person and try to conduct all of their interactions via text message. Others clients are seen as desiring little besides playing videogames and hanging out with friends. As all of these interventions are documented on clients’ digital records, line managers, team members, and local authorities are held to account for the information contained in reports about clients and the intensity of interventions undertaken to move young people from NEET to EET. As new collaborations and regional arrangements are negotiated, the mobile monitoring of youth participation is set to continue beyond this summer’s cohort of school and college leavers.

Julian Molina, PhD Researcher, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

5th of June, 2015


Professor Phil Mizen reports on 'Young Workers and the Next Parliament'

The recent general election campaign underscored the current difficulties many young people face finding work and the continuing importance of apprenticeships and training as the perceived solution to these problems. The Liberal Democrats campaigned on a policy of increasing apprenticeships, and both the Green and Labour Party made commitments to providing apprenticeships for all suitably qualified young people. The Conservative Party pledged itself to creating another 3 million apprenticeship places during the next parliament, in part funded by cutting benefits for out-of-work young people, and the rolling out of degree level apprenticeships. To this was added their intention to replace the Job Seekers Allowance with a Youth Allowance payable to all long-term unemployed 22 to 24 year olds taking up a training place or engaging in community/voluntary work.

Now they are in government, the Conservative’s intention to further expand apprenticeship provision is laudable, but the scale of the problem they face is considerable. Levels of youth unemployment are still running around three times the level of the rest of the population. The rate of youth employment has recently risen again but it is still well below the level predating the 2008/09 financial crisis. Wage growth among the under 30s in work has been especially weak. The majority of the 2 million apprenticeship places created under the last coalition government went to those aged 25 and over. Young people in their early twenties are disproportionately represented among part-time and precarious employment, forms of working that are becoming more set in the labour market.

As the fieldwork for Project 2 gathers momentum, we are beginning to gain an understanding of what some of this means at ground level. From consulting stakeholders we have already been told that many of those apprenticeship and training places created for young people during the last parliament have been at a lower level. Concern is thus growing that this may affect long-term employer commitment to future initiatives. More directly, we have also listened to young people speak in similarly ambivalent terms when contemplating such training. Here, the prospect of entering training that is perceived to offer low pay and uncertain jobs prospects together with few opportunities to improve skills and qualifications, is viewed with considerable caution.

Given the growing prevalence of low skills employment to recent jobs growth, it is perhaps unsurprising that young people are also telling us of their doubts about the value of further training and education more generally. For these young people it is work experience rather than skills and qualifications that has value. At the same time, these young people speak about the double bind they feel they face. Without work experience the jobs they aspire to appear to be out of reach, but they also see few opportunities to acquire meaningful work experience. We are learning that part-time, temporary and agency jobs do provide immediate solutions to problems of unemployment and lack of money. Such jobs seem relatively plentiful and young people are savvy about what they involve. But we are also beginning to learn of young people’s concerns about the implications of this type of working. Caught in a revolving door of unstable and uncertain employment, and the rapid movement between such jobs, young people tell us that they have few chances to accumulate the type of meaningful work experience that they feel many employers now demand.

Professor Phil Mizen, Professor of Sociology, University of Aston

20th of May, 2015


Professor Noel Whiteside talks about 'Policies on Pathways, Past and Present'

This ESRC project (Paths2Work) is focused on recent and current trajectories into employment by school-leavers and graduates – and the strategies used by employers in recruiting them. Project 1 is different. We re-evaluate past policies designed to bridge the gap between education and work. We focus specifically on previous recessions of the 1930s and the 1980s and I am charged with the first: commonly referred to as The Slump, denoting its severity and impact.

Historical perspectives necessarily involve locating and examining documentary evidence. For the 1930s, interviews are impossible. All subjects are probably dead. The 14-year old school-leaver in Birmingham or Leicester in 1934 (for example) would now be 95. If anyone knows of such a person please tell me.

So, it is back to the written evidence. Remarkably few interwar publications are concerned with young people’s unemployment. None, to my knowledge, have addressed the situation in Birmingham or Leicester: cities less afflicted by the interwar depression than the mining, textile, shipbuilding and heavy engineering districts further north. Even archival resources are relatively scant as officials in the Ministry of Labour and Board of Education were more bound up in internecine squabbles about whether post-school career guidance was the work of LEAs or the Employment Exchanges. As unemployment was so highly localised, most files are dedicated to the likes of Stockton, or Middlesbrough, or Gateshead – or an unpronounceable coal mining district in South Wales. One file only for Birmingham – indicating that there is really very little to discuss. Equally, the trade union files (and Warwick Modern Records Centre possesses a fair few) are most concerned with threats that ‘juvenile’ labour (to use the contemporary term) posed to the union rate, again in places where unemployment was very high.

How the ‘juvenile problem’ – both in archival deposits and thus in much historical work – has been interpreted is interesting. While there were fewer studies of juvenile labour in the interwar years, the issue commanded extensive attention pre-1914. Then, the ‘problem’ was understood as a putative source of social degeneration. Lads (and its was ‘lads’ who were at stake) were leaving school at the earliest age to enter the world of ‘boy’ labour – errand / messenger boys, paper boys, delivery boys and all manner of juvenile assistants. They were made redundant once old enough to command an adult wage: a process exacerbated in the interwar years as 16 year-olds had to have national insurance contributions paid on their behalf. Thence, untrained and unskilled, these juveniles were assumed to be forced to compete in the casual labour markets surrounding the docks, gasworks, building sites and agricultural work. Thus they increased the ranks of the under-employed, impoverished and pauperised (meaning reliant on public funds) and formed a burden on local communities as poverty bred sickness and criminality. Pre-1914 reforms had tried to stem the tide, to rationalise employment, to enable all to earn a living wage. While the interventionist state failed to survive the first world war, official attitudes proved longer lasting. In the 1930s, we can still detect fears that unemployed 14 year olds will drift into perpetual casualism, permanent dependence on public funds and possible criminality.

The question remains – was this happening? Answers are hard to come by. No official record of 14-16 year-old employment exists prior to 1935. Anecdotal evidence indicates that juvenile labour was in demand, notably in big cities where applicants moved from job to job to improve their circumstances and rates of pay. Such evidence contrasts with accounts found in histories published in the 1970s and 1980s which assumed high levels of unemployment afflicted young people. But did early job mobility translate into a life of intermittent joblessness? We do not know. Luckily Warwick Modern Records Centre also holds archives of local employers, which may allow us to find out.

More importantly for this project, the contrast between official perspectives then and now on transitions from education to work is striking. Then, the possibility of stimulating intermittent employment and subsequent social dependency drove policy. Hence, while direct action by trade unions caused concern, union organisation was encouraged because it enabled an efficient use of labour in accordance with local circumstances. Today, in contrast, union intervention is shunned and the view that ‘any work is better than no work’ dominates policy discussion. The public subsidies to underemployment that Ministry of Labour officials found so abhorrent in the 1930s now feature strongly in the form of tax credits. Both eras have focused on transitions into work as central to future working lives, but the objects of policy, the rationale on which it has been based and the visions of an efficient labour market could not be more different.

Noel Whiteside, Professor of Comparative Public Policy, University of Warwick

2nd of April, 2015.

Professor Melanie Simms reports on the engagement (or lack of) of employers with initiatives to facilitate young people's transitions to the labour market

Professor David Wilson (Open University) and Professor Melanie Simms (University of Leicester) presented this week at an event titled ‘Leading and managing in age diverse organisations’. They presented evidence from a previous project which forms the basis of some of the research they will undertake with employers in the Paths2Work project. Their presentation looked at evidence as to why employers do or do not engage with initiatives to help young people into work such as apprenticeships, traineeships and work experience.

Reporting evidence from 22 organisations split between those that do engage with these initiatives and those that do not, they highlighted the very different HR strategies pursued even by organisations in the same sectors. In general, even where they employ a lot of young people, organisations with strong internal labour markets often had fewer incentives to engage with these initiatives because they emphasised firm-specific skills. In those companies, although there was a potential attraction to draw down government funding to help develop training programmes, the quality assurance procedures and external scrutiny that come with that funding were often perceived to be a significant disincentive. This was confirmed by organisations that drew heavily on these funding streams who were often concerned about the speed of change of rules about quality assurance and with finding a partner training provider who could deliver programmes for large, multi-divisional organisations.

The challenges of incentivising decision making within large, complex organisations was also a consistent theme. In particular, schemes intended to incentivise the recruitment of young people such as subsidies and the future reduction in National Insurance Contributions, rarely filtered through organisations to the key decision makers. Specific examples were given about companies where unit managers were responsible for recruitment decisions, but no changes were made to their wage budgets if they recruited an older or younger person.

In short, the presentation highlighted how challenging it is for large organisations to engage effectively with many of the schemes intended to help young people into work and training. They are not insurmountable, but there are many unintended consequences which present difficulties for managers and for young people themselves. The follow up study that will be undertaken as part of the Paths2Work project will focus on in-depth case studies of organisations where both formal and informal arrangements are being used to help young people access work and training. We will explore the reasons why managers set up these schemes, and what they find to be the advantages and disadvantages. For more information on the event, please follow this link.

Melanie Simms Professor of Work and Employment, University of Leicester @SimmsMelanie

12th of February, 2015

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