Tuesday, 6 December 2011

'Wasted generation'

Too busy for blogging of late with the research and my art classes but I should keep in mind more consistently that the blog is a nice vehicle for occasional thoughts that aren’t connected to anything particular.

Like the one I had just now at the bus stop in Kingston, outside the Job Centre. I saw people going in who I imagined never had a hope of ever being employed. Meanwhile students were passing along the street, anything from 16-year-olds from the FE College to Kingston University students who might have been up to 26 or so. Nearly all were black or Asian (which in Britain typically means south Asian -- India Pakistan Bangladesh Sri Lanka -- rather than south-east or east Asian, often called ‘oriental’).

The schools and institutions like those I've mentioned are full of young people who are the first in the families ever to receive an extended education. Like the young Irishmen with little education who worked as labourers on English building sites when I was a student and some of whom I got to know, they represent a vast pool of intelligence, if I might use that dubious term from labour market accounting. A lot of very clever kids, and their equivalent in Britain now are getting something of an education, though by all accounts it may not always amount to much in the schools.

This is the lot who politicians are often calling a probably (almost inevitably, in fact, given the economics ) ‘wasted generation’. It’s not primarily because they can’t any more get to university that they’re wasted, though that is certainly harder now for many. It’s because they aren’t the jobs.

However, it seems to me that there may never again be the jobs. Already many of those in employment are doing work that’s well below their qualifications. How many jobs will there ever be that involve an educated specialist mind? what proportion of the population can ever be employed in work that does justice to the intellectual development they’re capable of, given good schools?

And there I'm stuck. What are the options? everyone do a PhD to keep them out of the labour market for a few more years? But few people want to stay in education indefinitely, even with generous grants; we see it as a phase in our lives, having its satisfying place because there’s the prospect of the real world after. There has to be, for most of us, an expectation that sooner or later we’ll be putting our minds to work at something that makes a difference ‘out there’.

Suppose there were a universal basic but very adequate wage, unrelated to employment. Could the whole unemployed population, or that part that has the capacity, spend their lives not in education but in the arts -- multiplying by a factor of n the amount of creative writing in the country, the number of bands, the frequency of theatre groups? an opera house in every small town? would that be good or intolerable? after all, much of it would be awful.

If the ‘out there’ were generously defined, ‘putting our minds to work at something that makes a difference “out there”’ might include doing research, even in things like history, since in the end it all has an affect on what people think and do.

We could double the number of teachers if they worked half time and were at university or in the arts the other half.

Etc etc.

But the cost can only be met by exporting, and perhaps having a financial sector (the City) that coins it by disreputable means and that can be taxed -- currently, I read, to the tune of £50+bn. The work in those sectors, however, plus services, will never be enough for everyone -- but might perhaps be profitable enough to fund the universal wage. Eh?

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