Young People and Workfare – It’s Time to Get Angry


This article appeared in the Scottish Left Project here

I’ll admit to being angry. We’re in the situation where, coming up to the General Election, both major parties are planning to further restrict young people’s entitlement to the most basic of social security. As an academic who writes about young people’s issues I tend to write about these issues in an almost detached and diffident manner. It gets increasingly difficult to do so.

It’s time we all got angry. There’s something very wrong about a country and a government that is willing to make young people do menial and humiliating work for the most pitiful of welfare. Workfare, as we call it now, is little more than a form of modern slavery. What message does this send to young people that we expect them to engage in it? Does it tell them that we value them as they embark on their adult lives? How are we making them feel toward a society that we want them to embrace? That we cannot give them the same pitiful entitlement ‘enjoyed’ by every other citizen of this country sends a message of symbolic violence to our nation’s youth.

“That we cannot give them the same pitiful entitlement ‘enjoyed’ by every other citizen of this country sends a message of symbolic violence to our nation’s youth.”

Of course, it’s not just here that young people are excluded. We only have to look at young people’s political participation to gauge how they feel about society. Is it any wonder they are choosing to tune out? As our leaders continue the neo-liberal march the market increasingly becomes the template for the organisation of our society. Any notion of a social contract is being torn up and young people are seen primarily as customers, or clients (or troublemakers) and any social relationship is to be gauged by how much value one can accrue by it. Young people are seen for their spending power and beyond that? The moral vacuum of materialism is all that matters now and that’s what young people are valued for. Their spending power – if they’ve got it. Carpet-bombed with messages of the good life. Youth are attacked for their selfishness whilst every sphere of their existence is commodified. People warble on about them being ‘the future’. Platitudes. Young people must be sick of it. What’s more important is the way they are treated. Freedom? What of it? Freedom is no longer talked about in terms of justice, equality, equity or the ‘public good’. Freedom is about the market, trade, TTIP and capital. You can stick that freedom and young people are telling us this too in their tuning out from politics. And who can blame them? The scorched earth being left by the market fundamentalists is leaving a huge chunk of our country’s youth in its wake. They are the primary sufferers in this new religion.

“Minorities and the poor are savaged every day in our press. Gobshites are given space (and celebrity status) when they air their ignorance and stupidity in the national media as clickbait brings more value than substance.”

Money dominates our politics. Just this week we see a lack of contrition from two top politicians. What a paucity of self-awareness. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing ever rapidly and none of our leaders have the tiniest inkling (or stomach) to do anything about it. Not really. They’re all scrambling around to see who can tinker at the edges the most. Minorities and the poor are savaged every day in our press. Gobshites are given space (and celebrity status) when they air their ignorance and stupidity in the national media as clickbait brings more value than substance. Money over morality. The Tories target the overweight and the vulnerable for ever more punitive measures. When instead of looking to target the wealthy, the elite and those that nearly dragged our country into the abyss we instead turn our focus on foreign people and the poor. When our government enacts a bedroom tax that disproportionately affects the disabled. What morals. What fantastic messages our politics must send to young people. No wonder they don’t want any part of it.

The collective state which held us together increasingly falls victim to the demands of big business. The seemingly untouchable spheres of health and education are now being sold off bit by bit. These have long defined how we interact, build our society and look after one another – and are increasingly the imperatives of privatisation. Nothing is sacred anymore. Community and solidarity are replaced by ruthless business-speak and the celebration of venal and naked self-interest. No longer able to rely on the institutions that held our society together the rampant individualism that compels our young people into a giant melting-pot of competition rides roughshod over the most vulnerable. It’s partly down to this individualism, I’m sure, that we see more and more of our young people suffering from depression and anxiety. So how do we respond? By humiliating them for a pittance. The social bonds that held us together disintegrate and the welfare state with it. Any reliance on the welfare state now is seen as a weakness as the social Darwinism currently sweeping across the UK views anyone on social security as an object of contempt. It hardly even matters how you get there, you’ll be scorned regardless. You’re disabled? Pah. We’ll drag you in front of someone just to make doubly sure.

As I’ve written elsewhere it is young people that are being hit hardest by austerity. Fewer jobs, higher unemployment, the biggest proportional decrease in wages, higher tuition fees, fewer college places and now, the most basic of safety nets having greater conditionality imposed on it. Come on. We should be questioning why young people aren’t out on the streets. But perhaps young people are just feeling powerless in the face of such a gargantuan and continuous attack. No-one else is standing up for them. Perhaps though, and even worse, it’s a sign of something the late Tony Judt identified – and something altogether more corrosive – a deep scepticism and a lack of faith in the very institutions and people that should be looking after them. A deep scepticism and a lack of faith in our democratic institutions, which, instead of serving young people is being turned against them. And due to their lack of democratic engagement they have become victims of policy – and market authoritarianism deems it necessary to compel young people to clean graffiti for 50 quid a week.

Henry Giroux calls such measures a form of moral depravity – particularly when they are targeted at young people. It is at such a time, when young people are becoming young adults, that they are still forming their identity, their views and part of this is how they interact with the world around them – and how the world acts back on them. How do we expect young people to view us, to view the society that they are just stepping into – when such depravity is turned upon them? At the root of all this is the fact that we’re taking punitive action against young people for a structural issue. We’re blaming them for their unemployment when the world of work is becoming increasingly hostile to the presence of young people. We’re turning what is a public issue into a private trouble and then making a public spectacle of it by forcing them to labour for ‘benefits’.

We want our young people to act with a sense of civic responsibility whilst at the same time we can’t give them it in return. How reprehensible we must all look in their eyes. It isn’t the young people cleaning graffiti that should be humiliated and ashamed. It’s all of us standing idly by and watching them. If I see a young person engaged in such an activity I won’t be able to look them in the eye. I’ll feel disgusted with myself for allowing it to be. And I’ll still be angry.

Image taken from Red Pepper magazine, in an article on workfare here:

Categories: Politics, Youth Unemployment

Tags: , , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. I agree. The elite/political class appears only to have respect for its own peer group. They look on others with marginally veiled contempt and often not concealed at all. I don’t believe in the popular view of having to earn respect. A basic level of respect should be with us towards anyone and especially younger people. Not everything can be taught by text books some things are learned by example. It’s more subtle things like body language, expression, attitude and inflection when communicating. We seem to be losing those talents and subtleties in favour of bluster, ridicule and dismissal.

    Actually I’ve began to wonder if we ever achieved a real belief in equality and we certainly don’t have it now. That is the legacy we have to pass on to future generations. We thought equality existed but money trumped it. What a great lesson! Young people aren’t dumb. They can sense it the same as us adults that grew up with so much hope now trampled on like so much dirt. We damn the future if we ignore this injustice. The wealthy do not seem to respect the social contract at all any more – did they ever?

    The legacy for the next generation is being taught now – inequality, iniquity, greed, no accountability, no responsibility, no integrity. The lack of respect from top down is now showing from bottom up. Very bad & very sad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That last line is something I worry about – that the legacy we leave is one of inequality and all the rest of it. I think we need to keep in mind the agency of young people. Many are already seeking to resist this but I worry that if they are continually trampled they’ll lose that will to resist. And I wholeheartedly agree with your point about respect. Everyone deserves it and i’ll continue to give it to everyone, regardless of their “achievements” or otherwise.



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