Last week, I wrote an open letter to Kwasi Kwarteng MP about his proposal of ‘jobseeker’s loans’ – a system whereby unemployed teenagers pay back the benefits they’ve claimed once in work. In it, I explained that his words ‘featured the two essential, predictable elements that almost all commentary on benefits and young people contains these days’. Namely:
- The implication that unemployment is a choice
- The implication that young people are to blame for their own predicament.
Imagine my joy when I discovered this two-headed beast alive and well in comments made by Conservative employment minister Priti Patel recently.
Apparently, Patel is of the opinion that young people should just go out and get a Saturday job. I could select virtually any sentence from her interview to illustrate my point, but I think this one works perfectly: “I work, I’ve always worked, and not working was something that just would never enter my mind.”
There it is. The assumption that not working is a conscious decision, that employment is an opt-in system.
As I read these comments and waited for the initial wave of rage to subside, I thought of my favourite scene in Matthew Vaughn’s 2014 film Kingsman: The Secret Service. For the benefit of readers who perhaps didn’t attend five cinema screenings over a two-month period, and haven’t watched the DVD once a week since its release, the film follows the recruitment and training of Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin into a secret intelligence agency. An unemployed, ‘aimless’ petty criminal from a rough estate, he is not a typical candidate.
Asked by Colin Firth’s character why he quit the Royal Marines, Eggsy responds:
“[My mum] didn’t want me being cannon fodder for snobs like you, judging people like me from your ivory towers, with no thought about why we do what we do. We ain’t got much choice, you get me? And if we were born with same silver spoon up our arses, we’d do just as well as you – if not better.”
Why, when there are so many other, more exciting scenes – including one of world leaders’ heads exploding to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory – is this my favourite? Because it resonates. A facsimile of Eggsy’s outburst is at the tip of my tongue whenever I encounter this kind of sanctimonious, condescending tripe put forth by politicians – which, as it happens, is almost every other day.
Like Patel, I also started work in a newsagents. I then held a variety of part-time jobs whilst at university, and entered full-time work upon completion of my degree. Nevertheless, I have spent two separate periods of my life out of work and claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, and am now one of many unemployed graduates.
This is the inconvenient truth that Patel’s comments omit. Unemployment can happen to anyone, at any point in their life. An extensive work history and glowing references only go so far – the jobs have to exist first.
With those at the very top spinning this accusatory yarn, is it any wonder that this attitude permeates all the way down through the benefit system, to the civil servants whom young people like myself encounter at the job centre? It explains why we’ve had to sit through compulsory workshops on ‘hidden jobs’, held to inform us that youth unemployment is entirely caused by our inability to network. If only we talked to more people, made more of an effort, jobs would magically fall into our denim- or tracksuit-clad laps.
Young people simply cannot win. Here, the employment minister responds to the idea that ‘young people are increasingly choosing to simply focus on their studies’, by claiming that this isn’t good enough. Every year, GCSE and A-level students produce increasingly excellent results, and every year comes the retort that exams are getting easier. We’re encouraged to pursue education as a way out of poverty, while the government insists on moving the goalposts, saddling graduates with crippling debt which accrues interest whether they’re in work or not. Sometimes, as I’ve discovered, you end up right back where you started – and when that happens, the very last thing you need is a government minister calling you workshy.
There are certain films that should be compulsory viewing for people like Patel: those in suits who claim to represent ‘the people’ and know what’s best for the country, yet – regardless of their own background – are now so divorced from reality that the only appropriate response is either laughter or despair. I think this list should certainly include not only Kingsman (“Positive discrimination, that’s what it is. Just like those state-school kids that get into Oxford on C-grades, because their mum’s a one-legged lesbian”), but also Educating Rita (“You think because you pass a pub doorway and hear ‘em all singing, you think we’re all okay, that we’re all surviving with the spirit intact”), and Kes (“Yours is the generation that never listens. Because we can never tell you anything”).
Any others? I’m open to suggestions. Let’s compile a comprehensive list.
There’s a big difference between having a sense of entitlement and expecting ‘something for nothing’. Young people should not be demonised for believing they are entitled to the same education and career opportunities as everyone else, regardless of class, income, or the absence of a silver spoon.
Yet no matter how much hard work is invested, young people are repeatedly kicked to the curb and conditioned to believe that they are the failures – not the system that created the very circumstances from which they are trying to escape.
I’m angry that the Conservatives are now seeking to ban people aged 18-21 from claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance or housing benefit. I’m angry that a man who is unable to walk, talk, or feed himself was this week summoned for a ‘back to work’ interview. And I’m angry that our government wants to deport non-EU migrants who earn less than £35k a year.
I wonder what Eggsy would say to this sorry state of affairs? I suspect it would be, “Are we going to stand around here all day, or are we going to fight?”