Exposed: the myth of a ‘culture of worklessness’

Stories about the real extent and problem of worklessness are finally making headlines, jostling with those about “welfare scroungers” and “shirkers” and “strivers”. Last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed the scale of “in-work poverty” and “under-employment” in the UK and how it is the “low-pay, no-pay” jobs market that keeps millions in poverty and holds the economy back. Early results show that the government’s flagship programme to tackle longterm unemployment, the Work Programme, is failing to meet its modest targets of placing 5% of participants into sustainable employment.

The “success rate”, in fact, was below what is said might be expected for longterm unemployed people who have benefited from no advice, help or multimillion pound government intervention. “Difficult economic circumstances” – that is, the lack of jobs – was offered up as the excuse. Perhaps, after all, there is a dawning realisation that the real problem of worklessness might lie not with those who are out of work but with “the economy, stupid”?

Yet myths persist. One of the most influential is that there are “three generations of families where no one has ever worked”. This is an idea first championed by welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith back in 2009 when he was at the Centre for Social Justice and commenting on housing poverty said: “Life expectancy on some estates, where often three generations of the same family have never worked, is lower than the Gaza Strip”. It suggests that unemployment can be explained by “cultures of worklessness” and “welfare dependency” being passed down the generations, from grandparent to parent to child. A debate in the House of Commons at the end of November saw government and opposition MPs drawing on exactly these ideas. But a new study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which set out to see whether cultures of worklessness helped explain long-term unemployment in families across generations, dispels any notion that this is the case.

Together with Andy Furlong at Glasgow University and researchers Johann Roden and Robert Crow, we undertook fieldwork in very deprived neighbourhoods of Glasgow and Middlesbrough. We used every method available to try to locate families with three generations that had never worked, such as spending days surveying clients of job centres, interviewing dozens of organisations that worked in these neighbourhoods, advertising via posters, newsletters and newspaper stories through leafleting and door-knocking and spending months in these neighbourhoods talking to hundreds of residents.

Despite this, we were unable to find any such families. If they exist, they can only account for a minuscule fraction of workless people. Recent surveys suggest that less than 1% of workless households might have two generations who have never worked. Families with three such generations will therefore be even fewer. As Paul Gregg, one of the foremost experts on inter-generational worklessness in the UK has said: “It just doesn’t exist on the scale people seem to think it does.”

After further searching, we managed to recruit20 families where there was long-term worklessness across two generations and interviewed family members in depth. It was clear that these families did not inhabit of “a culture of worklessness”. People told us that they deplored “the miserable existence” of a life on benefits. Families experiencing long-term worklessness remained committed to the value of work. Workless parents were unanimous in not wanting their children to end up in the same situation as themselves.

They actively tried to help their children find jobs (for example, by accompanying them to job interviews to provide moral support). As one 50-year-old father said: “What I want is for my family to have jobs. They’re not asking for anything big, that’s the thing, they are not, like, being greedy.” Unemployed young adults in these families were strongly committed to conventional values about work as part of a normal transition to adulthood. They were keen to avoid the poverty, worklessness and other problems experienced by their parents.

The long-term worklessness of parents in these families was a result of the impact of complex, multiple problems associated with living in deep poverty over years (particularly related to ill health). In an already tight labour market, these problems combined to place them at the back of a long queue for jobs.

The overriding message of the study is that if we cannot find a “culture of worklessness” here – among these rare cases of very long-term workless families in some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods – then we are unlikely to find them anywhere. Politicians and policymakers need to abandon theories – and policies flowing from them – that treat workless people as “scroungers” and “shirkers”.

The real challenge is creating opportunities for work – jobs that help people escape from poverty and insecurity.


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