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the workless on benefits - and careers work in the thick of it

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Bill Law
24 February 2012

Bill Law
The Career-learning Café

Attitudes to the out-of-work are hardening.  A reliable social survey shows that people are more inclined to blame the workless for lack of will-power, than to recognise unfairness or bad luck.  And the year-by-year trend is towards the tough talkers.  When things are bad for everyone it’s not difficult to understand the rejection of free-loaders.  But the facts don’t support the trend: on the most cautious estimates benefit fraud costs us a lot less than tax evasion.

It suits governments to pump up anger, so that they can claim to be able to deal with the cause.  And popular media seem to go for stories which hold readers in a more-or-less permanent state of rage.  But there is also this: having rogue individuals to blame is more acceptable than wondering whether there might be any kind of social responsibility here - calling for us all to think again. 

Thinking again is what careers workers do.  And, if we are not to collude with the trend towards blaming victims, we need to start more conversations about what is going on in the lives of people who wind up welfare dependent. 

The most telling single predictor is sad school-leaving qualifications.  Careers work needs more narratives about not doing well at school.  And Ed Coms has some.  He looks into why young people give up on education?  And he finds more than one thing going on - actually, he finds eight:

  • rebels without a cause: who find school offers nothing worth having - articulate - but seeing nothing they want to learn
  • angry young rebels: who remain at school - but reject controlling methods - oppose authority - and demand respect
  • cool dudes: who are able - but seek fun while they can - not blaming anybody - school is for meeting their friends
  • quitters: who feel they’ve failed - hoping against hope that they’ll find something - feeling lost - with no sense of control
  • settlers: who  are unworried and content - avoid challenges - let things take their course - favour lines of least resistance
  • strugglers: who want success - have a need to be somebody - but speak of failure and rejection - and seek help
  • escapists: who hope to be discovered - but frustrated at not getting what they deserve - and seek recompense elsewhere
  • hedgers: who make no commitment - looking to see what becomes possible - and so have no plans

Ed Coms avoids seeing any of this in terms of social class.  That was George Orwell’s thing - who declared himself to be a member of the ‘lower-upper-middle-class’.  The multi-hyphenated humour undermines simple-minded attributions about not measuring up.

Class-related or not, careers work must deal with attribution.  The vocabulary of attribution speaks of how people influence their own life chances.  Some work-related examples are in the following upper row.

ambition / attitude / competitiveness / employability / motivation

achievement   /   culture   /   economy   /   income   /   location

The lower row is less about what is attributed, more about what is directly observed. 

And there could be two separate conversations here.  In one, we may be talking about people who find poverty hard to accept, while in the other we know that anger is an attribute that will damage employability.  In one we might attribute a lack of employability, but we also know that an expanding economy can make that same unchanged person employable.  Are the upper and lower rows different sorts of statement?  Does each help to explain the other?  Can we get it all into one conversation?

The upper row already crops up a lot in career-talk.  We need to get to grips with the lower.

  • achievement: potential is always greater than achievement, but in a knowledge-based economy some will always struggle
  • culture: people learn beliefs, values and expectations from others they know, are known by, and trust
  • economy: expanding and contracting economies damage most the life chances of the least-well-situated
  • income: people do what they can afford to do, or sacrifice something else in order to do it 
  • location: the experience of self and work is different for the differently-situated, ranging from the cosmopolitan to the ghetto

Much of this is learned from sociology and economics rather than from psychology and assessment. And it re-frames the vocabulary of career development.  Paul Willis’s ethnography was among the first to indicate how different psychologically-assessed people may follow similar career paths because of shared socio-economic experience.

Orwell was right about complexity - there is always more than one thing going on.  And being in the thick of it all calls on a professional ability to take one thing with another.  And to do that before claiming what can usefully be done.  Alan Milburn was among the first to draw policy attention to how working-class aspirations are thwarted by selection into higher professions.  That’s bad, arbitrarily thwarted aspiration is unacceptable.  But the ethnographies show how early-life experience can squeeze all aspiration out of people - and it does that long before they are in any position to appreciate what is going on.  The secondary effects of those socio-economic realities may well include anger and rejection - and a great deal more.

Sociologist Will Atkinson probes what more there might be.  Poverty is certainly a factor - in the minds of both students and the people at home.  Their families find practical skills more familiar and understandable.  Habits-of-mind get formed - people rarely think of working any distance from where they are now, and when a job is lost a similar job is sought.  These are people for whom getting by is all they have come to expect.  They don’t push aside obstacles in order to get ahead, but they do turn for help to people they know well-enough to trust.  They learn it from experience, and experience is a persuasive teacher. 

It is no part of careers work professionalism to assign blame for what is happening in these lives.  That is, in any case, a moot issue.   Coms and Atkinson are both inviting us, instead, to start from where people are.  And both find some who will, one day, wake up to the realisation that they are worth more than has been attributed to them, and are brighter than some of the people who do the attributing.  They might wonder whether they could have done better - for themselves, and for the people who depend on them.  Ambition and advancement can never be compulsory; but people should know what’s going on in their lives.  And they are entitled to wonder what better contribution to the world they might make, and what bigger stake in society they might claim.  But too many don’t find out any of that.  It’s a life sentence, where no crime has been committed.  Will Atkinson and Ed Coms each find youngsters on track for it. 

I don’t know what careers workers can do about arbitrary recruiters.  But working out what to do about squeezed-out aspiration is among the most challenging tasks that careers-work innovation faces - in the thick of it, and big-time.  Bigger, anyway, than a few decimal places in measures of benefit fraud.


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