Unemployment: worse than 20s & 30s – or 80 & 90s?

Unemployment is likely to get quite or very bad. The numbers unemployed may reach 1980s or 1990s levels, or even 1930s levels. Here’s a comparative sketch of the miseries ahead. In a new way, they may be worse than ever.

Reading and reviewing We Danced All Night, a new social history of Britain between the wars, made me aware how very diverse a modern economy is. Swathes of unemployment may hit certain industries and areas and yet other parts may be be relatively untouched or do well. In particular, new industries may flourish even as old ones are in decline.

The First World War was followed by a long period of depression in Britain’s industrial “old staples”. Unemployment was never less than one million and rose to three milion in 1932 after which it only gradually began to decline. Quite high unemployment continued until the Second World War which was followed quite quickly by a long period period of something like full employment. Unemployment rose from a (relative) low of one million in 1970 to three million in the mid 80s and again in the mid 90s. In between these peaks, and since, the rate declined, until in recent years it has been very low.

But history may be a poor guide to the misery caused by modern unemployment.

In some ways, things will be easier. There is now better welfare for the unemployed. Many people will be unemployed in housing conditions (including cheap entertainment and communications) which could not have been imagined in previous times. Many of the unemployed will be well-educated and young, and therefore able to adapt to new opportunities in a way which wasn’t available to the middle-aged men who lost mining and manufacturing jobs in past recessions.

But in some ways, this bout of unemployment may be more cruel. It may be more middle class, which may mean more mortgage defaulters and more homelessness. It may mean more suburbanites immobilised by the loss of a car. What’s more, hardly anyone in modern society has skills in fairly cheerfully scraping-by. Those attributes were pretty common in earlier generations, not least of working-class people.

When I wrote Rich Is Beautiful: A very personal defence of Mass Affluence I wanted to point out the merits of the increases in material well-being we have known for many decades (actually more or less continuously for centuries). It seems silly now to celebrate economic downturn as a chance to return to earlier, less materialistic values. I am also not inclined to gloat that the New Unemployed will be “undeserving” bankers or estate agents or advertising executives.

Rather, let’s hope the recession is short and shallow and that as many people as possible can soon get back to the interesting business of nurturing emotional and intellectual richness from the vantage point of having agreeable material choices to make. Those choices do of course include saving for a rainy day.

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Publication date

02 December 2008