Friday, July 26, 2013

Jobs, Work and Culture

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

Everything that the Government announced last week about their long-term jobs initiative is to be welcomed. Why should it not be? It’s been a summer of political strife over the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill and battle will be re-joined over the Seanad Abolition Amendment come the Autumn.

All the while, 422,000 people endure the misery and humiliation of queuing up for their few shillings’ dole. For the 177,000 who are classified as long-term unemployed, it must feel like the state has given up on them.

Therefore, anything that’s done to help the unemployed get off the Register is worthwhile. While politicians try to score points in the Dáil, actual people in the dole queues wish to God those same politicians would just shut up and point them to where the jobs are, so they can return to life and normality.

The most impressive detail of the Government’s jobs initiative is the idea of a tapered return to work, something broadcaster and parliamentary assistant Noel D Walsh has often mentioned in different media appearances. If you’re living a hand-to-mouth existence on dole and its combined benefits, the one month that you have to survive until your first paycheck arrives can be a very long month indeed.

Rainy day savings may have run out long ago, and it might not be possible to make ends meet between the end of benefits and the start of wage-earning. This is the reality of life on the dole when your money runs out. You can do nothing. The money is too small. There is no wriggle room.

As such, any provision that the benefits can be extended and then paid back, or tapered off gradually, is to be applauded. The Government can’t stand on ceremony about these things. They are correct to go with whatever works, and this provision is overdue if anything.

On the macro level though, all initiatives are just bailing water on a sinking ship unless broader questions of culture are addressed. You’ll have plugged one leak when another springs up – better to ask why the ship is sinking in the first place.

There are two problems culturally. The first is our post-colonial heritage, where the folk memory of the Irish hasn’t made the connection that cheating on taxes and defrauding social welfare isn’t sticking one to the eight-hundred-year oppressor, but souring our own sovereign Irish milk. For a small nation to survive, we need to show greater solidarity with each other, and support the system.

The nation will have matured when the fella in the pub boasting about foxing the welfare or the taxman gets pints poured on top of him instead of bought for him. We’re a while from that, but we have to get there. The sums just won’t add up otherwise.

The second cultural problem is one that a lot of people reading this paper won’t be familiar with. Most people in Mayo either grew up on a farm or else no great distance from one. And on the land, there’s no real way to hide from a day’s work. In urban Ireland, there are swathes of population where nobody has had a job in living memory.

Think about that for a second. Suppose you’re going to school in a deprived area. Your father is on the dole, as are all your aunts and uncles. So is everyone on your street, and so are the vast majority of the parents of everyone else at school. What earthly motivation is there for you to get a job when you leave school? What do you even know about working in the first place, when you’ve never seen it done? When it’s never been part of your life?

When it comes to urban decay, the underlying tone in commentary is that these people are dumb, that they need state support because they cannot help themselves. They are not dumb. They are simply living in a different world to you or I, with different stimuli and different reactions.

Tennyson’s Lotus Eaters sing that “slumber is more sweet than toil,” and they’re right. Why would you work when everything around you encourages you to stay in bed? If you’ve never had a job, what do you know of the dignity of work, or the satisfaction of a job well done?

What do you do to change that culture? What do you do to make that section of society give up a good thing for what our modern contemporary culture decries as “wage slavery”? Their time is their own, and if things are bad a visit to the CWO can sort that out. Why would any sensible person give up on that?

Besides; no government can create jobs in the first place. Everybody who ever ran for office in any country promised jobs, but that’s shorthand. What they actually mean is that they hope to create an economic environment in which it will be easier for employers to employ more people. But economics gives everyone a pain in the head so politicians say “jobs!” and the thousands cheer.

For people who were working and have hit the skids the Government’s jobs initiative is a godsend. It means they haven’t been forgotten, the system acknowledges their plight and will make it as easy as possible for them to get back to work if the job is there. For that other section of the long-term unemployed, it doesn’t matter a whit. They might not even know an announcement was made.

Taoisigh come and go, economies go boom and go bust, and still their cycle of life goes on, oblivious to all. And it’s wrong – it’s wrong that society is striated, that your destiny is decided by accident of birth, that not all children have equal opportunity. The Government’s job initiative is to be welcomed and has many fine points, but the problem of the generationally long-term unemployed will prove a tougher nut to crack.