Thursday, 25 September 2014

Unemployment and well-being

Well-being is rising in the UK - and analysts argue that this is due to falling unemployment.  This is an easy link to make, given that unemployment is so damaging to well-being (as well as to other indicators of health).

That unemployment is falling is good news - for well-being and for the economy.  But what can we do for those who remain unemployed?  How can their well-being be protected?

There are broadly three options available to governments (assuming that governments care about the unemployed's well-being, which is not altogether obvious).

One option is to implement a jobs guarantee scheme, as originally proposed by Richard Layard and now supported by the Labour Party.  Depending on its form, a jobs guarantee scheme could essentially abolish long-term unemployment.  Which would be, presumably, beneficial for people's health.

A second option, explored by me, is to reform training programmes for the unemployed.  If programmes were more personalised, with more focus on work experience/skills and treated people with dignity, then they could be effective ways to reduce the mental health costs of unemployment.

A third option is more radical - and linked to the limitation of the previous two approaches.  That is: what if these approaches simply reinforce the social norms attached to paid work?  This could be problematic, as it is arguably these norms that are responsible for unemployment's negative effects on well-being.  In other words, would a jobs guarantee scheme reinforce the ideology of work: the notion that Work is Good and, correspondingly, Unemployment is Bad?

The argument here then is that to truly deal with the negative impact of unemployment, you have to change the nature and status of unemployment itself.  And this would require a far larger economic and social reorganisation than that implied by a jobs guarantee scheme or better labour market training programmes.  It might require, for example, a strategy of reducing the number of hours we all work.  Or, even more radically, introducing a basic income scheme.

In both of these strategies, a plausible outcome would be a blurring of the line between work and non-work: between employment and unemployment.  Being 'unemployed' would mean less in a society where 'working' meant something altogether different.

Changing what it means to be unemployed is, however, a large undertaking.  Yet we should be careful of supporting policies that might well aim to deal with unemployment's negative effects yet, in doing so, strengthen its (dangerous) hold on society.

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