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The case for full employment

5 Sep 2011 | Martin Taulbut

Work is good for your health. The Glasgow Indicators site provides a vivid illustration that the city lacks both. So why isn’t there more talk about the case for full employment?

Full employment occurs where there are more vacancies than people seeking jobs, unemployment levels are low and geographic differences in employment opportunities are minimal. If necessary, governments directly intervene to create jobs. It has happened before. During the 1950s and 1960s, UK unemployment hovered around 2%. In 1971, Glasgow City’s male employment rate was similar to Edinburgh’s (In 2011, it was 10 percentage points lower). But in the 1970s, amid rising unemployment, governments (and citizens) seemed less willing to believe that full employment was possible – or even if it was, that its drawbacks were too high.

Instead, the modern approach is to improve ‘employability’: to persuade, support or coerce people off benefits and into the labour market. Without jobs, this is a risky strategy for health. Oxfam, Citizens Advice Scotland and the House of Commons have all highlighted the limitations of re-branding Incapacity Benefit claimants as ‘fit to work’. The risk of mental health problems and mortality is much higher among the jobless than those in work. Where demand for labour is weak, the young, less healthy and less skilled find themselves at the back of the queue for jobs. In Glasgow, the GoWell report provided a reminder that on the city’s peripheral estates, half the male working-age population was not in work or full-time education in 2008.   

Part of the challenge means confronting the view that much worklessness is voluntary: attributable to laziness or to an over-generous benefits system. Although said with less confidence since the economic downturn began in 2008, the view that ‘they just don’t want to work’ is still widespread. Even in the good times, the real level of unemployment in Glasgow stood at 53,000, while employers reported just 10,000 vacancies. And far from rewarding idleness, the real value of unemployment benefits and Incapacity Benefits has flat-lined since the 1970s. 

By itself, full employment is unlikely to reduce the so-called ‘Glasgow effect’ – the excess of deaths in West Central Scotland (WCS) compared to comparable areas. European regions and cities which were exposed to a similar or worse trauma of deindustrialisation as WCS, such as Nord-pas-de-Calais in France, Silesia in Poland or Merseyside in England have managed to improve their health at a faster rate than us over the past 30 years. What it might help to do, however, is reduce inequalities in mortality within West Central Scotland. Young adult mortality from alcohol misuse, suicide and violence is especially high in this part of the world, and is concentrated in its poorest neighbourhoods - those same neighbourhoods where worklessness is highest. 

This isn’t to argue for a wholesale resurrection of past policies. Would modern Clydesiders welcome a return to a full employment built on dirty, dangerous and physically exhausting work where women are excluded from the labour market? The growth in post-secondary education and rising female employment rates suggests not. The full employment of the past also rested on cheap energy, with little regard for the environment. Peak oil and the prospect of resource conflicts mean repeating this is also an unlikely prospect. Instead, perhaps what we should think about is the spirit of full employment. This would start from the idea that the labour market is here to serve people, not the other way around. It would mean ensuring there is enough ‘decent work’, paying a living wage and offering a degree of respect and autonomy, for everyone who wants a job. It could also involve the kind of targeted, large-scale job creation scheme outlined by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research.

It’s forty years since Jimmy Reid led the men of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders on the Clyde in their famous work-in. In rejecting the dole, they were fighting to preserve the system of full employment that had existed since the war. So it might seem quaint to talk about full employment in of 2011 – but perhaps it’s time to reconsider.

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