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Julian Dobson FRSA argues for policies that begin to un-tap an important source of civic and economic renewal : time.

Britons, it’s often said, work the longest hours in Europe. The image of a nation of ulcerated, stressed-out wage slaves, juggling work, family and a commitment to voluntary activities, may resonate with many reading this. We might love to adopt the empathetic values espoused by Matthew Taylor in his quest for 21st century enlightenment, but they just get squeezed out.

Yet the burden of economic activity falls on less then half the population. Latest labour market figures from the Office for National Statistics show an employment rate of 72.1 per cent. But that’s 28.86m people out of a total of more than 62m.

Most of the rest, of course, aren’t of working age. But there are many others who are: at the last count, 2.47 million people were unemployed and seeking work, and many more – 8.19m of working age – classed as economically inactive.

The government recognises the problem. It wants to reduce the welfare bill by chivvying claimants into work, and shifting the balance from public sector to private sector employment. The rationale may appear solid, but it won’t work. Neither of these policy thrusts will significantly change the size of the labour market.

Indeed, in the short term, the situation may worsen. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development predicts an unemployment rate of nearly 3 million as 750,000 public sector jobs are lost. The axing of the Future Jobs Fund will intensify competition at the crucial early stages of young people’s careers, with the least skilled elbowed out. And the evidence tells us that inactivity breeds inactivity, particularly where young people cannot develop the ‘habit’ of working: long-term worklessness impacts on communities and individuals’ self-confidence and mental health in negative ways.

With 492,000 vacancies in the three months to May 2010 (and only 200,000 more when the market was at its height in April 2008), it’s clear the numbers don’t add up. There are five unemployed people for every available job. Another four people per vacancy are classed as economically inactive but, according to the TUC, would like to work. And a further twelve people per vacancy have decided they can’t work or have given up hope.

This isn’t new. A study (PDF, 155 kb) by the Office for National Statistics in 2003 found that the employment rate for 15-64-year-olds in 2000 was remarkably similar to that in 1902: 71 per cent compared with 69 per cent. For a century or more between a fifth and a third of working age people have been outside the labour market. What has changed is who works and who doesn’t.

The gains made by women in the workplace have been offset by losses for those in the poorest strata of society, male and female. Increasing affluence and demand for material goods, coupled with the rapidly rising real cost of housing, made two-job households more and more common. But for those on the margins because of background, education or location, no-job households were the consequence.

While ministers have made much of their ambition of generating two million private sector jobs, exponential growth in the labour market is hardly credible when technological change drives us towards higher productivity.

So, what is to be done? The answer is not to seek new ways to force people into jobs that aren’t there. As well as being inefficient (successive attempts to tackle worklessness have had only modest success) this approach tends to stigmatise individuals and communities already under pressure. A partial answer may be to share the work more equitably, as has been suggested by the new economics foundation. However, there is little evidence that the better-off are inclined to sacrifice their lifestyles; and for those locked into repaying mortgages or shouldering debts this is fraught with difficulties.

A better way might be to place a higher value on what Beveridge called idleness and we now label worklessness. To do so, though, would challenge the consensus that paid work is the solution to poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others have assembled extensive evidence to show that simply getting a job doesn’t eliminate poverty. But it has been unacceptable to suggest there might be real value and productivity in not having a job.

The concept of the Big Society might help our thinking here. If we want more voluntarism, neighbourhood activity and social capital, the greatest resource at our disposal is the time and energy of the economically inactive.

Not all have equal time or energy: but all have skills and talents that tend to be undervalued and ignored when they are not fee-earning. Many already do a huge amount of informal or unpaid work: social care, looking after children, acting as good neighbours. We tell these people they should be in jobs instead.

What if we began by valuing and encouraging the productivity of the unpaid? Yes, we need to offer routes into paid work, and jobs at the end of that process. But shouldn’t we reward the skills needed for employment – reliability, social awareness, communication, teamwork – rather than the process of searching for employment?

There are multiple ways to do this. At one end of the spectrum, we could turn the welfare bill into a fund for a universal citizen’s income, paid regardless of economic status and recovered through the tax system when earnings reach a certain level. At the other, we could encourage and promote arrangements like timebanking that allow people to exchange services without money changing hands. In between, we could pursue ideas like the Community Allowance, which encourages people on benefits to use their time and resources to sustain their neighbourhoods.

It’s a risky approach, because some will take advantage. But as the RSA’s important work on Connected Communities has shown, working with the grain of social networks offers far more potential than imposing policy solutions onto people. It could build on the evidence from the Social Brain project that suggests that there could be benefits in giving people better information about our cognitive short-cuts and frailties. Finally, it links to the RSA’s search for a more empathetic way of changing society. By celebrating and promoting the talents of all the population, regardless of their employment status, we really could start to weave the fabric of a Big Society.


Julian Dobson FRSA is the co-founder of New Start magazine and blogs with Living with Rats.

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