Today’s UK unemployment figures make for grim reading. Nearly two and a half million Britons are out of work, the highest figure since the mid nineties, accounting for 7.8% of the workforce. What’s more, the data emerges amidst dire warnings of continuing deterioration in the jobs market into 2010 and beyond.
For those of us old enough to remember the 1980′s, when unemployment was well over 3 million, one of the striking differences between then and now is the relative scarcity of cultural references to the jobless. Where is today’s television equivalent of Alan Bleasdale’s Boys_from_the_Blackstuff? Who is recording the noughties versions of The Specials’ Ghost Town or UB40′s One in Ten? (Admittedly "One in Twelve point Eight" doesn’t scan well, but you get my drift.)
Perhaps the cultural references will follow in due course, as the full impact of rising unemployment hits home. But a couple of other explanations occur to me. One is that however frightening redundancy is today, the modern labour market has changed beyond recognition in the last 25 years. Unemployment induced such despair in the 1980s because it affected millions of men (and it was mainly men) in traditional manufacturing industries who had assumed they were in jobs for life and saw no realistic alternative once those jobs disappeared. These days, there can be few people labouring (pardon the pun) under such illusions. Redundancy is still a nasty shock, but not necessarily a cause of despair.
It also occurs to me that some of the generation which grew up watching such TV programmes and listening to those records are now in senior enough positions to affect decisions about redundancy. They may be more inclined to look at freezing or cutting pay, or introducing part-time working as "least worst" alternatives to cutting jobs. Measures like these offer cold comfort to struggling families, of course. But it would be reassuring to think that the lasting impact of the work of Bleasdale and his contemporaries may have played some role in softening the impact of unemployment on today’s workers.