Myths about the unemployed

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    Myths about the unemployedW.W. Daniel aa Director at PSI ,Published online: 26 Nov 2007.

    To cite this article: W.W. Daniel (1990) Myths about the unemployed, Policy Studies, 11:4,31-42, DOI: 10.1080/01442879008423580

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  • Myths about the UnemployedW.W. Daniel

    Politicians, policy-makers, commentators and scholars share the samemyth about unemployed people. They believe that 'the unemployed'constitute a distinct and continuing group in society analogous, forinstance, to students and pensioners.

    In reality the unemployed differ from such groups in two importantways. First, most people who become unemployed spend, at most, only afew months in that condition so that the composition of the unemployedis constantly changing. Secondly, the unemployed do not identify withtheir attributed status; even those who spend longest out of work tend notto think of themselves as members of a separate identifiable group.

    Figure 1 Rate of attrition comparing (a) curve based on status at eachinterviewing stage; (b) curve including those who had workedbetween stages

    10090

    80

    70

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    Percentages

    Not looking for work

    10 15Months

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    Attrition based on Attrition Includingthose in work those who had workedat each stage between interviewing stages

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  • Myths about the Unemployed

    The constantly changing composition of the unemployedPSI has recently carried out a major study over time of the fortunes of8,000 people who first became unemployed at the beginning of the 1980s.1

    Unemployment in Britain was then close to its postwar peak and rising.Perhaps the most striking initial finding was the speed with which

    people found newjobs, even at such a time. Figure 1 shows the proportionswho had foundjobs at different points over the two and a half years duringwhich we studied them. A third of the unemployed foundjobs within abouta month; half did so within about four months; and two-thirds within ninemonths. It is true that, not much more than a decade previously, half thepeople becoming unemployed foundjobs within about a fortnight. But,although by the 1980s our results showed a substantial increase in thelength of time spent out of work by all people who become unemployed,few of them entered into long-term unemployment.

    Of course, we followed the fortunes of only one cohort enteringunemployment. Throughout the 1980s about 350,000 people becameunemployed every month and about 350,000 people left unemploymentevery month. Whether unemployment rose or fell depended uponwhether the difference between those joining and leaving was positive ornegative. It was not a matter of the army of the unemployed beingincreased each month in the first half of the 1980s as more people losttheir jobs and joined others already out of work. Nor did employers stopfiring people and start hiring them again in 1986, thus causingunemployment to fall. The hiring and firing went on continuously during

    Figure 2 Unemployed inflows and outflows through the 1980s

    500

    400

    300 -

    1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

    No. becoming unemployed(Inflow)

    I No. leaving register(Outflow)

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  • Myths about the Unemployed

    both the first and second halves of the decade, as did people joining thelabour market and people leaving it.

    As Figures 2 and 3 show, in the first part of the 1980s the numberjoining the register each month was rather more than the number leaving,and unemployment rose steeply. In the middle part, the numbers werefairly similar and unemployment levelled out. In the third part thenumber joining the register each month was not dissimilar to the numberin the early 1980s, but the number leaving the register was higher andunemployment fell. Fluctuations in the level of employment did notrepresent increases and reductions in the size of a near-permanent army.The unemployment level at any time was the net outcome of a set ofdynamic processes.

    Figure 3 Annual levels of unemployment through the 1980s

    14

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    Percentages

    :. ^

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    1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989

    The unemployed do not identify with each otherAs I have said, the second distinctive characteristic of the unemployedcompared with other groups is that they do not identify with their status.For them being out of work is an hiatus. It is not a condition that they havechosen. Even when they may reasonably be said to have left their previousjobs voluntarily, they have done so because they could not stand the jobsrather than because they wanted to be unemployed.

    For the great majority it is certainly not a condition that they want tocontinue. All their efforts are concentrated upon making it as short aspossible, and in most instances they succeed in restricting the duration toa few weeks or a few months. Moreover, it is remarkable how even youngpeople who enter long-term unemployment continue to conceive of their

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  • Myths about the Unemployed

    condition as temporary and to act as if it is temporary, although theircurrent period of unemployment is sometimes longer than the totalperiod that they have spent in work.

    Some implicationsThe distinctive characteristics of the unemployed compared with othersocial groups have implications for policy and practice. Thosecharacteristics provide a ready answer to the questions about theunemployed that have so troubled, and continue to trouble,commentators and policy makers. For instance, during the 1980s asunemployment rose above the magic one million level, and then abovethe magic two million level, and then above the magic three million level,they asked why there was so little trouble, why the unemployed protestedso little, why they did not rebel.

    Our results show that, even when unemployment was rising to threemillion the median duration for people coming into unemployment wasstill only four months. While people were out of work, their attention andenergies were devoted to getting back into work. They had neither thetime nor the inclination to see themselves as part of a group with intereststhat could be served by collective action. The few who failed to get jobs,and who went into long-term unemployment, tended to be older workers,or the least skilled or less than fully fit. They are not the stuff of whichrevolutionaries or activists are made.

    Similarly, employers and labour market administrators asked, after theclosures and redundancies associated with the massive rundown ofmanufacturing industry in the early 1980s, and when unemployment wasso high, why they found so few skilled workers waiting for them at thejobcentres. The answer is that when skilled workers lose their jobs they donot sit around waiting for the economy to pick up and produce a reneweddemand for people with their skills. They go off and take whatever jobsare available, whether those jobs enable them to use their skills or not andwhether or not they are in the same industry as before.

    Being prime labour, they