‘Is this even a word?’ asked the copy-editor for a report I was working on in 2002. She had a point. The word was ‘worklessness’, and despite years of experience in editing, she’d never seen it before. Up to a few years earlier I had probably never used the word myself, but at this stage I was so immersed in the world of labour market and poverty analysis that its oddness had ceased to register.
At the time, outside the world of policy and analysis, ‘workless’ was a disused term from an earlier era. In 1933 the Oxford English Dictionary recorded two usages. The first, ‘doing no work, inactive, idle’ dated from the 15th century and was classed as archaic and obsolete. The second was of later origin : ‘out of work, unemployed. Often abs. with ‘the’ (1848) hence Worklessness’. Thus in 1933, the only current usage of ‘workless’ was as a synonym for ‘unemployed’. ‘Workless’ was occasionally used in academic works in the 1980s, but always as a synonym for ‘unemployed’.
How and why did we come to start using this term again? And what did it mean? The answer lies in innovations in the analysis of employment and in New Labour’s political discourse on welfare. The two developments are related, but not the same.
In the 1990’s, ‘worklessness’ came to be used in a way that was both wider and more specific than ‘unemployment’ among labour market analysts. Wider, because it referred to the situation of not being employed for whatever reason, taking in both unemployment and economic inactivity: by this stage, economic inactivity rather than unemployment was the main driver of out-of-work benefit receipt, as it remains to this day. More specific, because ‘workless’ was mainly used to describe households rather than individuals. Partly this was because it would just sound weird to describe a household as unemployed or inactive, but it also wouldn’t be accurate, as some ‘workless’ households include both unemployed and inactive members.
Interest in employment at the household level had been spurred by the rise in poverty during the 1980’s and particularly by work by Gregg and Wadsworth which showed that since the 1970’s the distribution of employment across households had become decoupled from aggregate employment: there were more people in households where nobody was working and more people in households where more than one person was working than headline individual-level data would imply. It made sense to develop a vocabulary to describe these situations. Hence the revival of the somewhat outmoded word ‘workless’, paired with ‘work-rich’ to describe the opposite situation where all adults in the household were working. Note that these terms were purely descriptive of employment status: they had no further connotations.
Although my copy-editor, like most people, had never heard the term in 2002, ‘worklessness’ had a also begun to make appearances in political discourse. We can be specific about when this happened. A search of newspaper articles from 1970 on shows very few occurrences of ‘workless/ness’ before 1997, when New Labour began to use the term. Tony Blair’s first speech as prime minister was delivered at the Aylesbury housing estate in London. ‘The Prime Minister said that the decline of the old industries and the shift to an economy based on knowledge and skills had given rise to a new ''workless class".’ ‘‘Today the greatest challenge for any democratic government is to refashion our institutions to bring this new workless class back into society and into useful work and to bring back the will to win.’’
Not all of Blair’s 1997 soundbites were to survive into the next decade: ‘workless class’ never took off, for example. But looking at the Aylesbury estate speech now what is striking is how many of its themes he linked to ‘worklessness’ have survived. In particular, Blair presented ‘worklessness’ as an intergenerational phenomenon and as an area phenomenon. ‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job...’ ‘There are estates where the biggest employer is the drugs industry, where all that is left of the high hopes of the post-war planners is derelict concrete.’
Two examples illustrate the continuity of these themes. In 2004, the then employment minister Des Browne announced a drive on ‘inner-city cultures of worklessness’. ‘Mr Browne said the government had to break the intergenerational cycle which sees millions of children growing up in families where no adults hold down a job. Many workless families are concentrated in neighbourhoods where no one they know holds down a job either, Mr Browne said. In some neighbourhoods in his home town of Glasgow, the view was "nobody around here works". (‘ Labour to tackle inner-city 'culture of worklessness' Guardian April 1 2004) In 2009 the then Conservative work and pensions shadow minster Teresa May gave a speech at the Policy Exchange think-tank: ‘There are communities in Britain where more than half of working age adults are out of work and dependent on benefits. Nearly one in six children is growing up in a workless household. Worklessness has become a generational problem - passed from father to son, mother to daughter. ‘(Teresa May ‘Nothing incriminates Labour like the welfare ghettos they created’ Independent 28 August 2009)
The households where nobody has worked for generations and the areas where ‘nobody works around here’ are the recurring motifs in the political discourse of worklessness from Blair’s Aylesbury estate speech on: we could multiply the examples endlessly, drawing on statements by both Conservative and Labour politicians. What is striking about these motifs, along with their omnipresence whenever ‘worklessness’ is invoked, is their limited relation to reality. Lindsey MacMillan has already dealt with the ‘nobody’s worked for generations’ myth: the numbers are infinitesimal .
Areas where ‘nobody works around here’ are no less elusive. Even at the micro-scale of lower-level super output areas (average population 1,600), in only 0.1% of areas in England and Wales are more than 50% of the working age population on benefits (data for 2010), accounting for mere 0.6% of all out -of-work claimants. The data for Scotland tells the same story. Perhaps more granular geographies might capture even smaller areas where nobody is working- after all, we would eventually get down to the level of a one-room flat with one unemployed occupant. But to suggest that the UK’s employment problems- which are considerable- are to do with ‘communities’ where ‘nobody works’ is surely to stretch the meaning of community beyond breaking point. (Ward-level data for 1999 indicates that there were very few areas with claimant majorities then as well.)
Thus ‘worklessness’ re-emerged as a useful term in the analysis of employment and poverty and, almost simultaneously, as a way of bundling together exaggerated claims about intergenerational and area effects in political discourse. One of the few politicians to dissent was David Willetts, who drew attention to the fact (stressed in the academic literature) that figures on household worklessness were influenced by changes in household structure- particularly the growth in households which only contained one adult. ‘The statistics on workless households tell a story of different societies, different cultures and different patterns of work. It is seriously misleading to present it as simply showing that Britain has a problem of worklessness.’ (‘Let me explain;David Willetts on the odd fact that Britain has reasonable employment rates but many homes with no workers’ Guardian April 8 1998) This is perhaps to exaggerate in the opposite direction (the rise in household worklessness was still registered after controlling for household type), but at least it showed a willingness to ask what the statistics meant rather than using them to buttress a pre-conceived narrative.
‘Workless’ and ‘worklessness’ were terms my colleagues and I used all the time. We knew what we meant by them: they described a situation, not a characteristic of individuals or areas. They didn’t even define a problem: in many cases, worklessness was unproblematic. We thought that what we meant by these words was, quite simply, what they meant- after all, we were the experts and they were our words. This was a mistake. They weren’t our words and we couldn’t fix their meanings. By using them to describe the situations we wanted to understand, we were extending the usage of terms which had become anchors for a quite different way of understanding employment and poverty, or rather, of misunderstanding them.