[This is an unusually self-indulgent blog post in the form of a letter that David Cameron will never read, in response to his PM’s speech at Tory Party Conference – specifically, what he had to say about unemployment among the under-25s. Call it catharsis. Full speech here.]
Dear David Cameron,
It was difficult to listen to your speech today without taking it personally.
You say yourself that there are still over a million young people not in education, employment, or training. To all intents and purposes, I’m one of them.
Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits.
It’s time for bold action here.
We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all.
Instead we should give young people a clear, positive choice:
Go to school. Go to college. Do an apprenticeship. Get a job.
But just choose the dole? We’ve got to offer them something better than that.
So this is what we want to see: everyone under 25 – earning or learning.
You seem to be labouring under the illusion that this is a choice. If you’d like to offer me that choice, then by all means please do. I’d be the first to shake your hand. Earning? Yes please! I’d love to find people to pay me for the work I’m already doing. Learning? I’d love to do an NCTJ to help me into an entry-level job, but that really isn’t an option while I don’t have the means to pay for it.
So you can threaten to cut benefits for under-25s if they choose not to work all you want, but for some of us, it’s not a choice. I feel like I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here – I don’t think you’re a liar. I believe you have conviction. I believe you believe what you’re saying.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not fully aware of how adept you are at spin. And here’s the sinister part – the way you’ve decided to put young people down to absolve yourself of responsibility.
In your speech, you don’t mention me. You don’t mention the graduates, the unpaid interns, the zero-hours contractors and the ones who take short-term work where they can find it.
I’m all of the above. I work part time when shifts are available and freelance when I find an editor that will pay me. When I can’t, I write for free to build up my portfolio in the hope that I’ll prove to employers that I’m serious and qualified. I apply to jobs and take the Megabus to interviews. I don’t think any of these things are particularly noble; but for many of us, they’re necessary. It’s become the norm to expect to wait up to a year for your first graduate job, while the meantime is filled with cover letters and temp agencies, or internships and multiple part-time jobs.
And you think we wouldn’t rather be working?
The worst of this is that in some ways I agree with you – I do think we should make an effort to work.
It’s precisely for that reason that I didn’t take a part-time job during university, opting instead to spend all my time in student media and take the odd week of temp work. I kept up a part-time job for a while, but it was the first thing to go midway through final year – I figured if I did everything I could to make myself employable, it’d pay off in the end as I was more likely to find a job after graduation. I applied to graduate jobs. I even stood in the university elections for a sabbatical role.
So I won’t have you tell me I’m not willing to work hard. During that year I worked so hard I made myself ill and unhappy, and I’m amazed I came out with a good degree.
It’s easy to sound like a martyr here – I’m not. I put myself through hell largely because of my own stubbornness and stupidity; and to reiterate, I really don’t suffer under the illusion that any of this is noble. Please don’t think I think a non-journalism role is beneath me. But I won’t be erased or told I’m a shirker.
The fact that you don’t seem to grasp this seems to me to demonstrate an extraordinary lack of empathy; but the really insulting part is that anyone who listened to your speech earlier might come away with the impression that people like me don’t exist. All you talk about is lazy school leavers. You don’t talk about unemployed graduates, or school leavers who don’t know their options because they’ve been let down by poor careers advice, or people who’ve already been made redundant in their teens.
Instead, you mention only the unattractive minority, so that people can nod in wise agreement and conclude that the youth of today don’t know they’re born. How there wasn’t a choice in their day – you had to work, or starve.
Was that better? I thought that was what the welfare state was for – to allow people to survive when they had no other option. I’m incredibly lucky in that I have encouraging and generous parents who are willing and able to let me stay at home rent-free, but not everybody is. And while we’re on the topic:
Think about it: with your children, would you dream of just leaving them to their own devices, not getting a job, not training, nothing? No – you’d nag and push and guide and do anything to get them on their way. and so must we.
This might be lacquered with false empathy, but your underlying message is quite clear: you wouldn’t let your child continue not ‘earning or learning’, because that would be a shameful thing to do. You can keep your concern trolling to yourself, thanks. My parents were so proud when I landed my first paid writing job – I’m fairly sure my dad told everyone in the office. But I don’t think they were any more proud of me than they had been when I became an editor on my student newspaper, or the first time I was published, unpaid, in a national. If you’d like to tell them to stop, that they should be ashamed of me, and that they should be berating me instead, I invite you to try.
And as for “leaving us to our own devices”: by this, I presume you mean prancing around council houses marvelling at our lack of responsibility, or drinking White Lightening in a parking lot, or whatever other lazy stereotype you can come up with. I know the word of the moment for you is ‘hardworking’*. I also know that you must have no imagination, because you don’t seem to be able to conceive of any sort of effort that would qualify someone for any other category than ‘hardworking’ or ‘lazy’. In your speech, and everywhere else, you equate ‘hardworking’ with ‘earning money’. You don’t recognise that someone could work hard and not be paid for it – which would be a perfectly reasonable assumption if you were naive enough to think that thousands of companies have replaced salaried workers with unpaid interns and you weren’t Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Something your government is failing to regulate, by the way.
And what about the other kinds of hard work? What about full-time carers, whom you give just £59.75 a week live on? What about the people for whom, thanks to disability or poor physical or mental health, just staying alive is incredibly hard work? What about the single parents who forgo meals when admin errors at the DWP mean their rent isn’t paid?
I’ll leave those topics to the people in the links above who write eloquently and movingly from their experience.
So, why would you deliberately mention only school-leavers who won’t work, if not to deny all responsibility you have for unemployment figures?
By blaming us for our own joblessness, you’re conveniently deflecting the responsibility away from yourself and the government. But that doesn’t change the fact that the threat of cutting benefits to under-25s who refuse work is a gimmick that fails to tackle the issue of unemployment. There aren’t enough jobs; and competition is especially tough when older, more experienced people are forced to take lower-level jobs. With an excess of candidates, employers are free to ask for one, two or more years’ experience for where previously jobs might go to graduates – and why wouldn’t they?
We don’t patronise people, put a benefit cheque in their hand and pat them on the head. We look people in the eye as equals and say: yes, you’ve been down – but you’re not out. You can do it, you have it in you, we will give you that chance.
You know what, Cameron? That is patronising. It’s patronising to pat me on the head and tell me I can do it, while you blame me for not working hard enough instead of pushing policies that create jobs. And it’s unkind. To treat young people as scapegoats in order to excuse high youth unemployment is irresponsible and cruel.
And, yes, it’s personal. It’s disillusioning enough to work hard to make yourself employable, only to find yourself unemployed after university. We don’t need you kicking us for it. We’ve really had enough of your government’s thinly-veiled contempt for us.
*It should be two, by the way.