Monday, 14 March 2011


© Copyright David Simonds. Image from

I spotted a letter in the Thanet Gazette yesterday which got my goat a bit. Written by 72-year-old Ramsgate resident Leslie Elledge, it said the following:

“We have hundreds of unemployed, able-bodied young people. Surely there are some who would be happy to become involved in some voluntary part-time work for the benefit of the community. It seems to me that it has become the norm to rely on the Government for benefits at the slightest opportunity, to the detriment of taxpayers. I often wonder whether our generous welfare system has become an unsustainable burden."

With youth unemployment at a record high, since when did the young become a mere resource to be exploited for menial labour? Is it fair to forcibly enlist us all as military conscripts to Cameron's Big Society? A scandal has recently come to light where some Jobseekers were told they would lose their entitlement to benefits if they didn’t volunteer to work at a Poundland shop for nothing. Is stacking shelves at Poundland working ‘for the benefit of the community’ in the way Leslie Elledge is suggesting?

I admit that some voluntary work does have its benefits. I myself have done voluntary work in the past, to gain some experience and keep myself busy when I struggled to find work after I graduated. But we’re living in a terrible time for young people. Even those with qualifications like myself are scrambling for job opportunities and some may even have to resort to taking unpaid internships just to get a foot on the career ladder. That option, I imagine, tends to be taken by young people who still live with their parents, so they can afford to work for nothing because their living costs are subsidized by mummy and daddy.

But for currently unemployed people like me who live in privately rented accommodation, it’d be much more preferable to acquire paid work. But what paid work exactly is there? According to Simon Duke at This Is Money, 97% of the job vacancies created since the UK economy came out of recession are part-time. Part-time jobs are all well and good, so long as they pay the bills. The problem is, many of them don’t. As for what all this means for Thanet, a TDC report on the local economy said:

“Job density figures indicate that there is 0.65 (2006) of a job per person being of an economically active age. This density is lower than the rest of the districts in East Kent, and significantly less than the south-east average of 0.89.”

This basically means that the ratio of the amount of jobs available to the amount of people who comprise Thanet’s working age population is below average. In short, there simply aren’t enough jobs for everybody, of all ages, let alone just young people. Sure, some young people may benefit from voluntary work – they might have failed their GCSEs, or need to gain extra skills, but to generally assume that there’s a growing pool of young people to foist low-paid apprenticeships or unpaid internships onto and force them to pick litter ‘for the benefit of the community’ is very callous and exploitative. Moreover, to threaten to remove benefits from Jobseekers who refuse to work for no financial incentive at Poundland smacks of state-sanctioned serfdom.

People shouldn’t need to live in fear of destitution. What Leslie calls our 'generous welfare system' is anything but, in my opinion it is only providing individuals with what the employment sector, both public and private, are failing to supply them with. And let’s face it, if demand is higher for jobs than supply, then that means that big businesses will obviously prefer to create part-time jobs because they are cheaper, mean less red tape and the amount of National Insurance contributions businesses have to pay per employee is minimal, especially if Simon Duke is correct in his assertion that: "There is often no National Insurance to pay on behalf of the part-time employee because earnings are comparatively low."

Furthermore, David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald's book The Wage Curve made the convincing claim that "wages are lower in labor markets with higher unemployment" so, for all of the political rhetoric spouted about job creation, if it's cheaper for employers to keep people unemployed, then what options are left for people of my generation?
What young people need to be provided with, most of all, is well-paid jobs. We are the future. We should be building our lives, as I am trying to do. I am about to become a father and I’m trying my best to forge a decent career for myself and make the most of my talents, while at the same time forming the nucleus of a family.

I may be unemployed at the moment, but to hear other people assume that unemployed young people my age should be expected to subjugate ourselves to menial or voluntary work for zero pay simply because it’s convenient for disgruntled taxpayers and opportunistic employers is arrogant at best. It ignores the elephant in the room – the failure of the UK economy to create enough jobs for the workforce.


  1. Excellent points, I'm an Eng & American Lit graduate and I am doing a number of unpaid things at the moment - what I really resent is people repeatedly presuming that the current crop of young, unemployed, graduates don't WANT to work. There's real prejudice towards the unemployed and the current system is not designed to deal with people in their early twenties, with degrees. I have found that, if anything, signing-on perpetuates the situation. You stop finding work for yourself, you're simply finding enough job applications to satisfy job centre. A job would stop that. Unpaid work will not. Anyway, sorry to rant - great article.

  2. I couldn't agree more with you Luke. Leslie Elledge lived in a very different world when he left school or graduated. I am 15 years his younger and when I left university it never occurred to me that I wouldn't walk into the first job I applied for - which I did. Now, graduates with a 1:1 or with higher degrees are struggling to find employment. Not only that, but for the large majority of graduates, starting salaries are almost impossible to live on in some parts of the country, if you have to pay rent, council tax, utility bills, travelling costs AND repay student loans. For those without qualifications, finding employment must be a nightmare.

    My heart really bleeds for young people today who want to make a life for themselves, most of whom are prepared to work hard, don't want to live on benefits, but need employment that will offer them a future. I hope you will have some luck soon.

  3. I have to say that you are completely wrong about this Luke. Normally I agree with your opinions, but as someone who has spent the past few years working government contracts for private companies, dealing with long-term unemployed people to get them back into work, I have a lot of insight into the welfare system. As such I'll address each of your points, based on the facts and what I have seen from within the industry.
    Firstly the Poundland 'scandal', which was not a scandal at all. Voluntary work placements are only put upon people who have been out of work for at least a year. Some of the people I worked with had not worked for 20 years. Do you really think they could get a job after a period of unemployment that long? They need to redevelop their job skills. Also, around 50% of work placements lead to job opportunities, if they are handled correctly by the candidate. Finally, if a candidate is offered a chance to make an impression on an employer which may lead to a job, and they turn it down, they clearly don't want to work and therefore deserve to have their benefits sanctioned. Work placements only last for 4 weeks and all expenses are paid, the candidate just goes somewhere to at the very least get a reference and something recent on their CV. How is that bad?
    Voluntary community work is a different thing to a work placement. It is what it sounds like - volunteering to help the community. Anyone can do it, I have, you have, it's a good thing. But it is not a mandatory work placement.
    The next point you made an error on was part-time jobs. There are a lot of them, yes. However if you work 16+ hours a week you are still entitled to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit, which will top your wage up to the equivalent of 37.5 hours a week at minimum wage. The more hours you work, the less benefit you are given, but it is graded so the more you work the better off you are. Also, if you work 30 hours or more a week and are aged 25 or over you can claim Working Tax Credits. They are changing the benefits system, and a new procedure will start coming in at around April time, officially being launched in June, but the principles will be the same. You will always be better off working.
    As for jobs to people ratio, 63% of the population of Margate are claiming benefits. That is the 7th highest in the country. All those unemployed people, there really are not enough jobs. Luckily a lot of the long term unemployed do not want to work, and will do anything they can to avoid it. I do not say this as a generalisation, but rather as an observation of genuine people I have met. As I said, I work with them.
    The problem with the benefits system is that you can stay on it. It is called Jobseekers Allowance, so if you are not looking for a job you should not receive it. This is something that the new coalition government does actually understand, which is refreshing. On benefits you are effectively paid a part time wage, so you should therefore spend 16 hours of your week looking for work. That is your job, and to claim JSA you sign a legal document stating that you agree to, will, and are doing just that.
    In my opinion we should adopt a system like New York used to have - you get 6 months JSA then it is cut. Let's see how many people manage to find jobs then. Someone on benefits for the last 10 years would have cost the taxpayer around £26,000 for JSA alone! Plus Council Tax and Housing Benefit, you are looking at around £70,000. No wonder the economy is in recession...

  4. First off, it's great to have you back here blogging. Hopefully someone will come along and maybe have an opportunity for you. *fingers crossed*

    I don't think working in Poundland really gives the experience that you need and youd be better off doing something that suits your talents. Writing, blogging, engaging with social media are all your strengths and you never know where this can lead. Keep doing what you enjoy and don't get sucked into unemployment and being permanently classed as 'unemployed'.

  5. Seb - I appreciate you have first-hand experience on the issue of welfare, but in my opinion, there is a problem with job creation in this country so adopting the New York method of cutting JSA after six months wouldn't solve that particular problem. For one thing, successive governments haven't supported a policy of full employment since the mid-1970s because they believe that if everybody worked, people would start demanding higher salaries and the economy would be riddled with instability.

    Therefore, we will always have a surplus of unemployed people. But I want to work. My main issue is the fact that as a uni graduate I still can't get a decent job for love nor money. All I am focusing on with this blog post, is that not every young person is happy with being an unpaid volunteer for a prolonged period of time. As I made clear, voluntary work does have its benefits for some of the workshy and underachieving types you refer to, but there is a limit, especially if - like me - you have some achievements under your belt and want to capitalize upon them, not to mention having financial requirements to meet and - soon, in my case - a baby to feed.

    As for my own circumstance, I don't even get JSA, because my partner works. We don't get working tax credits, because we are both under 25. She earns minimum wage, which isn't much, and we get housing benefit and council tax to top up her income - £48 a week - but even that puts us in a situation where we have very little left for food and petrol for the whole month (consider how much food and fuel prices have gone up!).

    I've been told by the Citizens Advice Bureau is the reason our benefit is so low is it is calculated in accordance with the local housing allowance rates set for the type of property in which we live, and because we rent a modest 2-bedroom house - one for us, one for baby - the implication as far as the government is concerned is that we should move to a cheaper place. In other words, it's forcing people out of their homes and into bedsits, and I think that's rather immoral.

    Overall, what I want to highlight most of all is that young people have - I feel - been dealt a raw deal. If you can't claim working tax credits until you're 25, it encourages many to live with their parents for longer, and keeps young people from progressing in their own lives with a degree of independence. It keeps them off the property ladder, and it prevents them making something of themselves. Subsequently, we have a situation where successive governments over the last 30 years have decided it'd rather devote its time to fostering a relatively stable economy with high unemployment than an unstable economy with low unemployment. The price young people have to pay for that outcome is to live unstable lives.

    However, that's my view, and I completely respect your view on the matter. But I think there are many facets to this issue and I feel we both have worthy points to make.

  6. Luke - I completely agree with everything you just said! I now understand the message behind your article, however my issue is with the 'facts' you relied upon to write the article in the first place, as they are inaccurate. I could explain in great detail the way the DWP calculates things and why what happens and so forth, but you'd get bored (so would I) and it would take a long, long time.
    However, I am in completely the same position as you, at the moment. I have recently left a job where I was at the top of my pay grade, on a higher salary than anyone I know who is my age (and several a lot older), and now cannot get any assistance looking for a job as my girlfriend works just over 16 hours a week. My rent is huge, and basically we are living off savings until I get somewhere. As someone who knows the way the system works, I am not relying on the Jobcentre to help me, instead going about it myself. Now I do not have a degree. You do, and I don't mean to belittle it in any way as I massively respect you for it and think it's a fantastic thing; but it does not mean you are entitled to a job. On average there are 300 applications to every job in Thanet. The lower the skill, the higher that number, and vice versa. Therefore your degree will be competing with people like me who have extensive experience and are highly qualified through in-work training. If I was an employer then I would pick experience over education, as they will know what they are doing and will be able to do it straight away with minimal training, resulting in maximum output, meaning maximum profitability. Unfortunately times have changed since you went to university, and degrees no longer put you on the front line. This is why you're finding it hard. At the same time though, I know you had an interview last week, and even if you didn't get the job I know they would only interview 30 people at the most, putting you in the top 10% of applicants for that job. That is a good result in anyone's book.
    As for the rest of it, if you're not getting paid then declare yourself as self-employed, sign off, you'll still get Housing Benefit as long as you can justify earning between £60 and £70 a week, on paper. You will also be entitled to both Working and Child Tax Credits as soon as you have your child. Then you can write freelance, and not get investigated for fraud!

  7. A rather depressing read but wondered if you had seen this:

    I would also like to address a point made by Seb. I agree that young people really do need opportunities to address job skills, but offering a month here or there making tea does not help. There need to be real regulated lengthy training opportunities on offer.

    For graduates in some industries there is no hope of employment without completing several long internships. Some may be paid, many though are completely unpaid and do not even offer expenses. Fine if you can rely on the bank of Mum & Dad, but what hope for those that can't?

    Lastly, unemployment is forecast to rise to almost 3million by 2012. Ho hum. There will always be people that do not want to work, but I believe these are a minority.

  8. SMitchell - I agree with you about work placements. I was not saying they were good, merely explaining what they are and the reasons they exist. They do work, however, but not if you are just making tea for a month. Effective work placements need to put the candidate in a position to learn new skills, or refresh old ones, and allow them to gain a reference and something for their CV (which will be blank for the past year), but most of all the work placement needs to be set up when an employer is considering employing new staff, and therefore they can be offered on a 'trial' basis. As someone who has previously set them up I know the benefits, and the reality of long-term unemployment is very different to reading about it.
    However, valid point.

  9. True, Seb. I'm not getting paid for writing freelance as of yet, but you never know what might happen, but if it does eventually occur, I will be sure to get myself reclassified as self-employed. You can rest assured of that. In the meantime, however, I'm just plain old unemployed dole scum. Haha.

    As for the job interview itself, I got through to the final two, and got no negative feedback whatsoever, so there's certainly nothing wrong with my interview technique. It's merely a matter of experience, as you say. The person who got it had telesales experience whereas I didn't.

    And I know how you feel, mate. I know a journalist who was recently made redundant, so it seems like everybody - no matter what industry - is feeling the pinch. And I agree that a degree does not give me a natural entitlement to a job, but I am aghast at how we got to this situation. The Pfizer business only makes matters even worse.

    Am I right in thinking that it was the Poundland story you took issue with in the main?

    And SMitchell - I completely agree with your point about regulated lengthy training opportunities. Lack of regulation has been a large factor into why young apprentices for building firms get paid very low wages. I have, in fact, written about that issue before: Certainly food for thought.

  10. Luke - Yeah, the Poundland/slave labour thing. The rest you're either bang on, or as close to as you can be based on what's in the public domain. Unfortunately the facts lie in what happens outside the public domain, but as I said before that's a lengthly one...

  11. Well written Luke! I am also a journalist who got made redundant and had to sign on for most of last year.
    The fact of the matter is, there are quite simply not enough paid jobs out there right now. Anyone who doesn't believe me should check out the pages of the local paper, or job points at the Job centre.
    There are possibly a few care jobs going, but most need experience, and that's perfectly acceptable. I wouldn't want my gran being cared for by someone with no experience just to keep him or her off benefits. I do voluntary work - but what the Government fails to mention is that for a Jobseeker to do any voluntary work, it must be approved by the Jobcentre, "to avoid exploitation." How would a graduate stacking shelves for free, while someone else earns £6 an hour sitting on the till in the same shop not count as exploitation?
    If, as everyone fortunate enough not to have lost their job seems to believe, jobseekers should be forced into voluntary work, the country would eventually collapse. The organisations will lose out, as they will be lumbered with unqualified, unsuitable volunteers, the young person will find themselves sidelined as younger people graduate and take up positions. In journalism, IT, medicine, science, engineering, several industries, it only takes a couple of years for your qualifications to become outdated. Encouraging a graduate to stack shelves for free helps no-one.
    Incidentally, Luke, after applying for over 100 jobs last year, and getting one interview, four rejections and the rest not even acknowledging me, I decided to go freelance/self employed - if you think you're up to it, I'd suggest trying to forge yourself a career that way. You'll be more in control and it's great for making yourself feel more positive! Good luck, whatever you decide to do!

  12. Voluntary work helped me greatly: about 4 & 1/2 years ago I did a few weeks voluntary work at a local sports centre (mostly mopping up & cleaning toilets), followed by a few weeks sorting out old clothing in a local charity shop. Both of these (apparently) gave me great references when applying for "real" jobs, & I've been very happily employed in my current job for 4 years this month.

    I think many people (& I'm not accusing you of this Luke) find it degrading doing those kind of voluntary jobs when they've had highly paid skilled jobs in the past & / or they're highly qualified, but personally I find even cleaning toilets less degrading than the dole queue.

  13. Don't worry, Peter, I know you wasn't accusing me of presuming that voluntary work is degrading, because I know for a fact that it is not. However, the point of working is to earn enough money to get by (i.e. to pay the rent, pay the bills, buy food, etc.). How long must people continually volunteer for job after job, making no financial gains whatsoever, time and time again, until the penny eventually drops?

    I went to university because I misguidedly felt that it'd make it easier for me to get a job - any job - so that I could afford to live with my partner and raise a family. I just feel that social mobility has clearly stalled if we've reached the kind of eventuality where people are expected to volunteer for zero pay and simply ignore the financial obligations which we all have to meet in order to survive.