Gramsci and shattering some ‘common sense’ positions on Youth Unemployment

Common Sense

“Common-sense appears to be only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers” (W. Somerset Maugham)

“Common-sense” is a difficult concept to define. What qualifies as common-sense and what does not can be open to very different interpretations depending on a society’s attitudes, values, morals and beliefs. Gramsci (1971) suggests that:

…it is not a unique conception, identical in time and space…it takes countless different forms, its most fundamental characteristic is that it is a conception which is fragmentary…and in conformity with the social and cultural position of those masses whose philosophy it is. (p419)

For Gramsci, common-sense is closely equated with the idea of ‘hegemony’. Burke (2005) writes that in this line of thinking, what becomes ‘common-sense’ represents the values, attitudes and beliefs which help to perpetuate the power of the ruling elite, but internalised by the general populace as the ‘norm’. Gramsci expands on the thinking of Marx and Engels (1970) who wrote that the ruling class ‘has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones’ (p64). Looking at the issue of youth unemployment in the UK, it is possible to draw parallels between this framing of common sense and much of what parades as common sense today. For educators and youth workers who work with young people, these common sense positions have to be challenged and ultimately dispelled. Bound up in these discourses are positions which serve to marginalise young people and perpetuate the illusion that their unemployment is entirely of their own making. Educators therefore have to possess a critical social awareness of the dominant discourses which can masquerade as common sense.

There are plenty of jobs out there for them

I saw a news story on the BBC website this morning saying that 20.5% of Britain’s youth are unemployed and out of full time education and I started wondering what the cause of this was. There are, I believe, plenty of jobs available for those that want them. (Wynn, 2011)

The notion that there are plenty of employment opportunities for Britain’s youth is one of the easier myths to shatter. The latest statistics on unemployment show that of the 2.16 million officially classed as unemployed, 853,000 are aged 16-24 (ONS, 2014). For the period January to March the number of job vacancies officially recorded was 503,000 (ibid). What is clear is that given the unlikely scenario that all these vacancies were to be filled, this still leaves a huge number of individuals out of work. However, the myth that there are enough jobs is propogated by high ranking government ministers with the current work and pensions secretary telling the unemployed to ‘get on the bus’ and go to where the work is (The Guardian, 2010). Iain Duncan-Smith is following a well-trodden path of seeking to shift the blame of worklessness onto the shoulders of the unemployed, as Norman Tebbit famously sought to do the same in 1981 when he told jobseekers to ‘get on their bikes’ (Wild, 2007).

It was at the beginning of the 1980s that young people’s employment prospects began to gradually worsen. Since the mid-1970s successive governments have prioritised economic conditions which are favourable to business at the expense:

…of the more general need for a wage…in a little over two decades young people’s employment prospects have shifted from a relatively advantageous position…to one of considerable disadvantage, as unemployment among 16-24 year olds has persisted at double the general rate. (Mizen, 1999: 23)

Mizen here is off the mark, however, as in more recent years the rate of youth unemployment remains stubbornly at three times the general rate. The decline of the manufacturing industry in the UK, the growth of the service sector, the casualization of employment, the collapse of the youth labour market and the huge decline in the demand for apprentices has hit young working-class people disproportionally hard (Steer, 2000; Mizen, 2004; MacDonald & Marsh, 2005; Roberts, 2011). These factors receive little attention, however, with public discourse instead preferring to focus on the shortcomings of working-class youth. It’s much easier to pathologise the issue of employment – much more difficult to address the structural issues which cause it in the first place.

They don’t want to work

The problem with all these reports is they assume those involved want work. In my experience they prefer wandering the streets with a can of cheap lager stuck in their mouths and producing illegitimate children.

Two hegemonic discourses are at play in the above quote and it is necessary to tackle each in turn. The first is the assumption that the young unemployed actively choose not to work. Second is the positioning of young unemployed people as being morally deficient and engaging in behaviour which is deemed anti-social, irresponsible and deviant. In the case of the former, it is argued that there has been a tendency in government to attribute young people’s under-achievement in education and employment to their lack of aspiration and motivation (Sinclair et al, 2010). Mckendrick et al (2007) write that in contemporary policy discourse the focus has been on young people who are seen as ‘disaffected’. Although its exact meaning is difficult to pin down, they argue that ‘in conventional use, ‘disaffected’ means discontented, alienated and dissatisfied’ (p140). MacDonald and Marsh (2005) note that analyses such as that of Charles Murray (1990) have had considerable influence in positioning young people as shunning work:

They lack job-readiness and their commitment to employment is said to be fickle. They are claimed to be unprepared to work ‘flexibly’ across unsociable and/or long hours, to insist on unrealistic rates of pay and to be uninterested in jobs that are not close to home. (p119)

Far from this being the case, several studies have found that young people profess ‘normal’ aspirations (Williamson, 1993; Riley & Docking, 2004; MacDonald et al, 2005; McKendrick et al, 2007; Sinclair et al, 2010; Foster & Spencer, 2011). These studies found that young people expressed conventional hopes such as a stable relationship, a home, children, a readiness to work and ‘no sign of any consistent rejection of the work ethic, the value of education nor an oppositional culture in relation to education, employment or social engagement’ (Mckendrick et al, 2007: 150). Rather, what is evident from these studies is that many young people although harbouring ‘mainstream’ ambitions, simply do not have the opportunity to pursue them or are hindered by factors such as poverty, family disadvantage, localised unemployment, disability and discrimination. These complex and often interrelated factors appear to be forgotten in ‘common-sense’ discourse, ‘labelling young people as the root cause of the problem rather than the wider social structure’ (Barry, 2005: 5).

This first assumption feeds into the second. As McKendrick et al (2007) note ‘there are familiar echoes of earlier theories of an underclass and culture of poverty in contemporary discussions of disaffected youth’ (p140). Although the usage of the term ‘underclass’ has waned in recent years, its influence continues to shape political and popular discourse (Clement, 2010; Sinclair et al, 2010). Central to the theory of underclass is that there exists a stratum of people at the lower end of the social spectrum who choose to detach themselves from ‘decent’ society. Wyn and White (1997) note that the:

…terms used to describe aspects of the ‘underclass’ are especially resonant of youth – the images are those of people who have a total lack of self-control, who engage in violent crime, who are lazy and unmotivated and who are disrespectful of the symbols and institutions of mainstream society. (p138)

France (2008a) argues that young people who are considered ‘NEET’ (Not in education, employment or training) are framed in such a way in policy discourse. As such, he suggests, this has seen the government take less of a supportive role and a far more punitive approach in guiding them to what is perceived as ‘pro-social’ behaviour. This has seen the welfare state increasingly turned against young unemployed people as they are forced to attend training and work experience programmes, face stiffer benefit sanctions and many losing their entitlement to benefits (Mizen, 1999; Welsh & Parsons, 2006; France, 2008b). Framing young people as being morally deficient, Williamson (1997) notes, ‘is a convenient ideological tool for either abandoning any commitment to the poor and disadvantaged, or cultivating popular support for more coercive measures’ (p80).

The hegemonic influence of this (mis)framing of unemployed youth is argued to have accelerated in recent years due to the twin processes of ‘risk management’ and ‘individualisation’ (Batsleer, 2008; Bottrell, 2009). Foster & Spencer (2011) suggest that contemporary youth policy and research has moved on from underclass conceptions of young people who were constructed as ‘bad’ to those who are now ‘at risk’. Risk factor analysis attempts to identify the characteristics present in individuals which can lead to ‘problem’ or anti-social behaviour in later life. In terms of unemployment, these factors include offending behaviour, academic underachievement, school resistance and behavioural problems (Yates & Payne, 2006). Again, however, these issues are seen as individual failings and reinforces the belief that young people who fall into the category of ‘NEET’ are in personal deficit. This ‘feeds into the blaming and responsiblising and problematising culture that exists around how the state should tackle the youth question’ (France, 2008a: 9). This analysis fails to take into account the different resources available to advantaged and disadvantaged youth with the latter being at far greater ‘risk’ of social and economic marginalisation.

This is compounded by the growing ‘individualisation’ of modern western societies, with theorists such as Beck (1992, Beck et al, 1994) and Giddens (1991) noting that traditional structures such as the family and class are dissolving. Increasingly, ‘individuals are framed as shapers of their own worlds making decisions according to calculations of risk and opportunity, but risking blame and punishment if they get their choices wrong’ (Kemshall, 2009:155). This has led to a tension between ‘agency’ and ‘structure’ as many researchers have found that life chances can still largely be predicted on the basis of young people’s place in the class structure (Bynner, 2005; Furlong & Cartmel, 2007; Côté & Bynner, 2008). This means that young working-class people are increasingly held personally accountable for failing to make the transition from school to employment, seen as a consequence of their lack of skills or educational attainment.  Again, such a view ignores the impact of long-term economic restructuring, poverty and family disadvantage – all of which tend to have particularly deleterious effects on young working-class people.  Factors such as these undoubtedly limit the amount of ‘agency’ that a young person is able to exercise in shaping their own life-path. However, as  traditional patterns of social reproduction become ever more opaque in modern discourse, young people who suffer from such disadvantages are ever more likely to find themselves blamed for their shortcomings, branded as failures and/or morally deficient.

They just need to get a ‘foot in the door’

Unemployment at the start of a person’s working life can hold them back permanently. Getting people a start, a foot in the door, or a chance to build their CV, is not just a ‘nice to have’.  It’s the bedrock of our labour market. 

The notion that a ‘foot in the door’ is the ‘bedrock’ of the labour market is one that requires to be challenged. For young working-class people leaving school and not progressing on to further or higher education, the labour market that awaits them is significantly altered from the one their parents faced. These include an ‘increasing wage gap with older workers, earnings instability, more temporary jobs, lower-quality jobs, fewer benefits, and more instability in employment, including the fast growth of part-time jobs’ (Côté & Bynner, 2008: 258). Whereas in the past transition to employment would have been made in a more linear fashion, the post-modern condition for young working-class people tends to be more fractured (Cieslik & Simpson, 2003; Furlong & Cartmel, 2004; Roberts, 2011). As Furlong & Cartmel (2007) note:

New forms of ‘flexible’ working have reduced job security and many of the least qualified young people have become trapped on the labour market periphery where they are vulnerable to periodic unemployment and to a process of churn between one poor job and another. (51)

Far from being a ‘foot in the door’ young people can find themselves trapped in a series of dead-end jobs with little hope of progressing to ‘the next step’. MacDonald & Marsh (2005) in their study on Teeside found that their cohort tended to be stuck in a cycle of unemployment, government training schemes, college courses and low-paid, low-skill jobs. As Worth (2005) suggests, policy must look beyond a ‘foot in the door’ and look to the long-term for these young people and ensure that ‘vulnerable members of the labour market are not left in a churning trap between bottom-end jobs and unemployment’ (p410).

For educators working with young people, understanding this is absolutely fundamental. Trapped in this cycle and unable to move into satisfying or rewarding employment those young people with little in the way of educational credentials are at increasing risk of economic marginalisation. And ‘when the individual is unable to immediately move into new work, failure may be very differently experienced, as internalised deficiency, uncertainty and sense of disconnection’ (Bottrell & Armstrong, 2007: 357 – my emphasis). Add to the mix the dominant discourse of individual responsibility and the myth of meritocracy and it has become easier to blame these young people for their ‘inadequacies’.  Of course, young people themselves are not immune to the hegemonic influence of these discourses. Furlong & Cartmel (2007) suggest that in late modernity young people’s lives revolve around an ‘epistemological fallacy’:

Blind to the existence of powerful chains of inter-dependency, young people frequently attempt to resolve collective problems through individual action and hold themselves responsible for their inevitable failure. (p144)

Stuck in this ‘churn’ young people may believe they wield substantial individual agency, when in reality they are still bounded by the substantial impact of structural factors which impinge on their ability to progress in employment. When ‘common-sense’ positions tell young people there are plenty of jobs out there, blame them for failing to take these opportunities, are positioned as work-shy in popular discourse, disparaged for their lifestyle choices and told from even the most well-meaning that they just need a foot-in-the-door (and not appreciating the reality of the labour market today) it does not seem so irrational that many young people may choose to shun ‘mainstream’ society.

Perhaps the greatest driver in perpetuating these discourses, however, is the growing inequality in the UK (Green & Curran, 2008; Parekh et al, 2010). Wilkinson & Pickett (2009) argue that with growing inequality:

…people are less caring of one another, there is less mutuality in relationships, people have to fend for themselves…so, inevitability, there is less trust. Mistrust and inequality reinforce each other. (p56)

It is little surprise that over the past twenty-five years British attitudes to the poor have hardened to those at the bottom (Shildrick et al, 2009; Timmins, 2010). Undoubtedly, the hegemonic discourse outlined above has helped in this process. As our society becomes more polarised the rush to blame those marginalised by processes largely out-with their control will inevitably quicken. As such, it is crucial that those working with these young people have a critical social awareness of these discourses and processes. Overcoming common-sense positions is perhaps one of the most difficult challenges that educators may face. Ideological hegemony, in Gramscian terms, means that these common-sense positions are largely accepted by the majority of the population as self-evident ‘truths’. Worse still, young people also internalise these so it is crucial that educators avoid their re-enforcement and assist them to relate these personal troubles to what are essentially public issues (Wright-Mills, 1959). If they do not, then they may be party to perpetuating the marginalisation of those young people they work with. It is absolutely essential that we work with young people to shatter these common-sense myths.


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