Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Middle class and jobless"

The Channel 4 programme on the practical realities of trying to find work, even when armed with a degree or a glowing CV.

Last week's Dispatches focused on one of the apparent surprises of the credit crunch: middle-class unemployment.

Cue a striking parade of marketing and human resources managers who grew accustomed to a life of £80k a year (or more) and who now have to re-adjust their standards of living: second homes in France, fancy BMWs, kids at public schools. Some of that will have to give.

The recession is hitting those former high-fliers in the face, along with the ugly discovery that you can send off hundreds of application forms in six months and still end up empty handed. The loss of self-confidence gradually takes over and insecurity grows.

Dispatches revealed that an estimated 750,000 middle-class victims of the crisis are not registered unemployed. Whether it's fear of stigma or initial reliance on decent redundancy payments, the fact is the government's unemployment figures don't take into account what is a massive (and growing) contingent - a theme that will crop up again in the programme.

Which begs to the most depressing part. Watching this episode of Dispatches reminded me in fact of a book that came out two years ago called Fantasy Island. Written by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, it explained why most of Tony Blair's rhetoric while in power was based purely on cloud-cuckoo land.

For instance, New Labour's glaze-eyed obsession with cajoling 50 per cent of school leavers to go to university was part of Tony Blair's ability to sell weaknesses as strenghts. Remember those proclaims that top-up fees were worth trebling because a degree was "a passport to a brighter future"?

Well, like most things based on illusion and denial, sooner or later the chickens come home to roost and, with the crisis, along came the time to mop up the mess.

Forget the above mentioned "high fliers". There's ordinary people like Adam, with a Business degree who left him £17,000 in the red, whose lack of success in finding work results in a commission-only door-to-door sales job for Dogs Trust. "At this rate, he won't even make the money to cover his fare home" says the narrator.

There's a guy with an MA whose only chance is to sell pizzas at Domino's. And with over-qualified people taking up low skilled jobs, those without qualifications are sidelined even further.

Dispatches revealed how the class of 2009 is now facing the worst job prospects ever. The number of people with a piece of paper that says "degree" has doubled in the last fifteen years. The last two years alone have seen an extra 50,000 graduates coming out of university while vacancies dropped by 20 per cent.

300,000 people graduated in July and the number is set to increase to 320,000 in 2010, a huge blow to an already mangled job market. As Martin Birchall, a researcher interviewed by Dispatches, put it: "This is a tidal wave of graduate talent coming out of university all hungry for jobs and opportunities".

A few months ago the government announced it was on top of things and paraded a new internship scheme called "Graduate Talent Pool". They announced an initial 7,500 internship positions available, aiming at a total of 15,000. As Dispatches shows, however, only 2,000 have been advertised so far and half of them are unpaid internships.

Most striking, however, is that whoever takes up an offer, even an unpaid one, is removed from the official unemployment figures. Paired with the above mentioned unregistered jobseekers, it means that the 7,9% unemployment rate announced by the Office for National Statistics in September is a very conservative estimate.

Referring to Britain's bizarre approach to Higher Education, Martin Birchall said on the programme: "We're raising people's expectations unrealistically. We're asking them to make a huge financial commitment to go to university and yet we don't have the right number of jobs in place in the end to sustain this enormous graduate workforce".

[Also see "Help the Graduates" and
"CBI: Science not a real subject"]

11 comments:

PhilH said...

Labour's 50% policy was always crazy. It's great to encourage people from all backgrounds to consider university, but Labour's message was that university was the only worthwhile option.

Cue record dropout rates.

Never convinced by Charles Clarke's argument that top-up fees were good because graduates would benefit and then "pay more back into the system". Very rarely did I see anyone point out to him that if you earn more you pay more back anyway.

Anita said...

There is an aspect no-one seems to be taking into consideration and I don't expect this government to come clean as they have a habit to play fast and loose with the facts.

The last few years have seen record numbers of undergraduates taking out a student loan.

You only start repaying your loan when you earn £15,000 a year.

But with less and less graduates reaching that threshold or losing their job there are probably already record amounts of graduates defaulting on their repayments.

Isn't this going to go off at some point?

James D said...

Self-employment never looked so good...

PhilH said...

Anita, anyone who's graduated in the last 7 or 8 years has their loan repayments automatically taken out of their pay packet (unless they're self-employed).

On the old system, the onus was on you to pay it back.

It is actually very affordable to pay back, as it's such a small fraction of your pay packet. But unless you earn well over the average salary, you're barely paying off the interest.

There will be little in the way of defaulting, but not many people are actually paying it all off.

Last year, for the first time, I finished the year with a smaller loan than I started with. This year I won't. I graduated in 2003.

Anita said...

Phil,
thanks for your explanation but I was already aware that repayments are now automatically taken from your salary.

My point is: with less and less people able to repay it, how long is this system going to be sustained for? Wheres the money coming from to cover those student loans?

PhilH said...

But there will be more people making repayments every year with each new set of graduates, and very few people leaving the scheme by paying it off in full.

So I presume there will be more people paying back into the pot, without actually significantly reducing their own debt.

By that logic, it's a self-sustaining bubble.

Until, of course, it stops sustaining itself.

PhilH said...

But yes, would be interesting to know if that's right or not (because it's probably a bit more complicated than that), and how much money is coming from where.

RodneyD said...

I graduated in 1998, and if I'm being honest I'm glad that I graduated when I did.

I left with a student debt of £4000which I thought was huge, but now looks like peanuts!

We have far too many graduates in this country, and there are many so called graduate jobs out there, that don't really need a degree.

Young people need to do some serious thinking about taking a degree and what it will achieve.

There's an assumption that by doing a degree you wiill automatically walk into a graduate level job at the age of 22/23. This is rarely the case, and I know many people where having a degree has taken maybe ten years before the so called benefits really start to kick in.

The job market is all about having good skills and experiences and constantly updating them, and making sure that you never stand still.

PhilH said...

Yet another comment from me. Came across a story in the Telegraph today, about the "massaging" of the numbers of students studying science.

Only, the article was complete bollocks. So I wrote a blog post on it. There's some stuff relevant to this thread in there as well:

CBI's criticism of Government's science figures

claude said...

Anita,
I see your point. It's a very valid one.

RodneyD,
totally agree. I graduated in 2001 and as soon as I started applying for jobs I realised that most of my peers were going for jobs that didnt require a degree. When I learnt that 300,000 people graduated in 2009 I was actually shocked. I knew it was going to be many, but not that many!

Phil,
I read your post. You have a point, but then again, thats the Telegraph, so I'm not surprised. I linked your post from the OP anyway :-)

Helen Highwater said...

Graduated in 2002, have worked full time ever since, and still owe as much student loan as I did to begin with! *slow handclap*

Now, I *could* pay in a bit more if I felt like it, but the scarcity of promotion opportunities where I work pretty much indicates that I'll always have a low wage, so I'll never pay off the whole loan. Just as well it melts into air once I retire. Or die... :-O