Discipline and Punish – Workfare for Young People and the General Election

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So. Now we have it. Both major parties in the UK, Labour and the Conservatives have outlined their plans for young people and entitlement to social security. Both see an increased conditionality, are ever more punitive and sorely lacking in any empathy. Less carrot and more stick. Albeit, the Tories undoubtedly are wielding a bigger stick. A much bigger stick indeed.

David Cameron announced that ‘What these young people need is work experience and the order and discipline of turning up for work each day…a Conservative government would require them to do daily community work from the very start of their claim, as well as searching for work.” Far from considering the changing nature of employment (particularly youth employment) the talk is, for youth scholars, wearily familiar. ‘Discipline’ is what they need – not jobs. But young people want jobs. They don’t want discipline. They don’t want compelled labour programs. They don’t want the drudgery that will be thrown them, making them feel like cattle. This will simply heighten anomie, leading to increased problems – probably increasing their distance from the labour market, not bringing them into it. Young people will simply end up removing themselves from the job ‘market’ altogether. Some will choose to engage with the workfare, some will inevitably turn to alternative sources of income and many will be shifted into poverty as they forego the humiliation of this ‘work’ and elect to do without social security. But perhaps this is the aim in any case. As Guy Standing notes in his book The Precariat, rather than instilling ‘discipline’, these forced labour programmes:

…do the reverse, making many people sullen and resentful. And doing an enforced full-time job will prevent people from searching for a real job. Workfare schemes do not cut public spending either. They are expensive, involving high administrative costs and low-productivity ‘jobs’. Their main intention is rather to massage the level of unemployment down, not by creating jobs but by discouraging the unemployed from claiming benefits.

And therein lies the rub. These programmes do not create jobs, they simply park people (young people) for a period of time. And worse, they can actually act as a deterrent for young people in the labour market. Research by Robin Simmons and colleagues found that:

…engagement in poor work can act in synergy with real and imagined barriers to participation and curtail the desire to work. As we have seen, chronic churning between repeated low-level training courses and certain forms of paid and unpaid employment, often characterised by insecurity and exploitation, was the norm for those participating in our research. Whilst official discourses about building work experience are superficially seductive, we found that disillusion engendered by continued failure to secure employment of reasonable quality set in sooner or later, often with negative consequences for attitudes to employment.

There has been a multitude of research conducted into the attitudes of young people towards work. All point in the same direction – young people want to work. They don’t require discipline. They require work. Meaningful work which offers fulfillment, security and a sense that they are contributing to society. Furthermore, research has shown that marginality is the story of the youth labour market, not exclusion. It is not the case that young people are out of work for sustained periods of time, but rather drift in and out of work as opportunities arise (part-time employment, short-term contracts, educational opportunities etc etc). This is not the consequence of the poor work attitudes of young people (which Cameron’s language is seeking to frame it as) but of a fragmented labour market which is hostile to the presence of (primariliy working-class) young people. This further negates the requirement for the language of ‘discipline’. Young people will seize opportunities if they are there. They are no different to the rest of us. So why are we picking on them? Neither the Conservatives or Labour seem to have the answer to this. Easier to punish, or discipline. Foucault well understood that at the heart of this sort of issue, is power. And that is a commodity in short supply when we consider young people and their ability to resist these punitive measures. Forced labour of this sort carries with it a level of humiliation, of ‘othering’ – marking these young people out as different to their older contemporaries and in need of special treatment, special attention. At least young people can now comfort themselves that they are not alone any more however, with the Conservatives setting their sights on the overweight, alcoholics and drug addicts. Cold comfort indeed, I imagine. What these groups all share in common is a distinctive voice or level of power to resist these vindictive measures. Sooner or later this will reach older age groups too, if we don’t assist young people to resist this. Because, ultimately, that is the end game here. But who is speaking up for young people?

Image courtesy of agencypost.com

Categories: Youth Unemployment

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Alan – have linked to your blog on the IDYW site. Thanks.


  2. Just as well you are, Alan!

    Liked by 1 person


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