22 Jan 2012

The Cabinet and the ‘snooty so-and-sos’

I’m not sure whether a Cabinet Minister calling an unemployed graduate who objected to working for Poundland for free a “snooty-so-and-so” qualifies as a gaffe. That it might not, tells you a lot about Britain. Had an analogous insult been aimed at a pensioner, farmer, hard working parents etc, I’m pretty sure it would have been.

In many ways, it is rather revealing. If you peel away all the initiatives around employment and youth there is one unsaid strategy: “Youth! Lower your job expectations”.

In 2010 the government’s story about its five year plan for jobs and the Work Programme, was that far less of the jobs growth under the Coalition was to go to foreign workers, as occurred under Labour (90 per cent plus of jobs growth was accounted for by a growth in foreign born workers in employment).

The story from ministers in private: that the Coalition’s Big Stick will get indigent, slothy hoodies on estates – currently marinating on benefits – doing unfashionable jobs in discount stores, catering, sandwich-making etc that are currently done by foreign workers.

Few could argue with that, if it actually worked. But anecdotally, so far, something else seems to be happening (we don’t have the data yet). It’s more qualified graduates that are being obliged to lower their expectations, even to the point of free manual labour for multinationals, dressed up as “work experience”.

To some degree, that is the natural economic consequence of the current relative economic decline of the West. If you can’t get a job, then lower your wage expectations, is the message from conventional economics. The words of Iain Duncan Smith in his Sunday Times interview (paywall) seem to echo this:

“What a snooty so-and-so. She seemed to say she shouldn’t stack shelves because she’s intelligent. The way she sneered — as if she was too good for it,” he says. 

“…It’s a human right for the taxpayer to know you’re doing something productive instead of wafting around looking for the job you want while someone else pays for it.”

In many ways we should all welcome the candour. Many, maybe even most voters would sympathise with that view generally (I’m not going to get into the specifics of the Cait Reilly case)*

But it is not consistent with the typical political clichéd messages that young people should expect a bright future and raise their heads high and aim for the stars. It is rather inconsistent with charging people tens of thousands for university education, and expecting it to be repaid by higher salaries. It’s also clear that many youth in this situation are the sons and daughters of Conservative and Liberal as well as Labour voters.

And it raises another strategic problem. What happens if more qualified young people take the government at its word and start taking all the better low-skilled jobs. What, then, for the main targets of the Work Programme’s tough love on Britain’s council estates?

Perhaps the austerity-afflicted Portuguese might offer a glimpse (HT twitter.com/ianbrumpton) into the future. The PM recently told jobless young teachers to “just emigrate” to Brazil or Angola to find jobs. With youth unemployment at a record here too, I expect to see a surge of young Brits popping up in Shanghai and Mumbai.

* forgive me for not delving into much into the details of Cait Reilly’s story, and the precise nature of Mr Duncan Smith’s criticisms. We are trying to set up a debate on the show.

Follow Faisal Islam on Twitter @faisalislam