The longest journey starts with a single step - RSA

The longest journey starts with a single step


  • Social justice

Regular listeners to the Moral Maze(hi Mum) will spot the connection between Michael Buerk and David Aaronovitch. The former has been the long-time presenter and chair of the programme, the latter was a very accomplished stand-in earlier this year. But this week there is another connection – immigration and jobs.

Today in The Times, Aaronovitch is fighting a brave rear guard action against the widespread but erroneous view that immigration creates unemployment and drives down wages. Given how many people – the latest being Ed Miliband – seem to have bought the ‘immigration is bad for the poor’ line, David’s determination to base his opinions on the actual statistics is an example - to misquote TH Huxley – of slaying a seductive hypothesis with an ugly fact.

Last night after our Moral Maze conversation about the morality of bailing out the Greeks (or should that be bailing out the banks), Michael Buerk was telling me about a recent visit to Herefordshire. Knowing me to be a bleeding heart liberal, the great man was as circumspect as possible in asking why it is still the case that Eastern Europeans migrants are willing to take jobs which indigenous youth refuse (I imagine he might have posed the question in somewhat more forthright terms if his interlocutor had been my fellow Maze panellist, Michael Portillo).

From their different perspectives both David A and Michael B agree that the problem about unemployment in areas where there are jobs is more to do with the readiness and willingness of local people to work than the impact of migration.

Why is this? The political right’s argument will tend to focus on the failings of the unemployed and will prescribe a more authoritarian regime in terms of benefit conditionality. The left may point to low wages and the poverty traps created by reductions in the value of in-work benefits. There may be validity in both arguments.       

But I think other things are at play too. One might be what could be called the narrative of work. My suggestion to Michael Buerk was that Eastern Europeans may be willing to do tough work for low wages because they see this as part of a bigger life story. Perhaps their ambition is to settle in the UK or maybe to return to their mother country with enough money to set up their own business.   In contrast, young people with limited skills and expectations of career progression may see the choice as simply between being free to hang around on limited benefits (perhaps occasionally topped up occasionally by cash in hand odd jobs) versus the constraints and indignities of a menial job which only gives them a few pounds a week more spending money, by the time things like transport, uniform etc have been paid for. This is not to condone those who choose not to take opportunities but to suggest that motivation is not just a matter of proximate choice but also wider life narrative.

I don’t know if there is any authoritative research on this but anecdotally it seems that employers who have a good reputation for looking after and progressing staff (M&S, McDonalds) will attract plenty of applicants for jobs even though starting wages are modest. Also relevant is research undertaken a few years ago which showed that many working class young people had a pretty sketchy understanding of the labour market and the range of careers that existed in any sector, such as health care.

I guess all I am saying is that part of encouraging young people to take on opportunities which offer limited short term benefits is to provide information and encouragement so that they see this as being the first step on a bigger project of personal growth, financial independence and career development. Ministers are currently mulling over whether to abandon independent face to face careers advice so perhaps this is another reason to suggest they shouldn’t. It’s also why I hope we at the RSA can take forward the promising work we have been doing around providing mentoring for students in FE.

Getting young people to take up modest opportunities (and we shouldn’t forget that in some areas there are no opportunities at all) is about sticks and carrots but also about advice, encouragement and support, and in that we can all play a role.

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