The government must focus on employment, not employability

Employable, but lacking employment options. michaeljung/Shutterstock

The number of professional and middle-class managerial jobs has shrunk, according to a new study by researchers at Oxford University. This is bad news for Britain’s graduates and represents a worrying trend, where an increasing number of young people are facing a downward move on the social ladder. Meanwhile, the UK government continues to focus on making young people more employable. But, as this study shows, this is the wrong tack to take.

Studying more than 20,000 British people from 1946 to the present, the research found that while social mobility does remain strong in the UK, it is going in the wrong direction. According to John Goldthorpe, a co-author of the study: “For the first time in a long time, we have got a generation coming through education and into the jobs market whose chances of social advancement are not better than their parents, they are worse.”

Downward mobility

The results do not bode well for Britain’s economic future. And, as Goldthorpe said: “The emerging situation is one for which there is little historical precedent and that carries potentially far-reaching political and wider social implications.”

The study shows that social mobility in the UK is not in decline. But, while people are still moving between classes at a rather constant rate, this is increasingly the result of people moving down the social ladder rather than upward.

The reason for growing downward mobility is a combination of fewer high-paying and stable professional jobs coupled with more people who want them. Britain is a victim of its own post-war success, in this regard. The dramatic expansion of top end managerial and professional jobs in the years following World War II, created a new generation with higher expectations and economic aspirations. There was then a severe decline in these jobs following pro-market, pro-competition government policies from the 1980s.

In the 21st century this downward trajectory has only continued. The financial crisis and widening inequality, highlight the increased vulnerability of young people caught in a labour market where good jobs seem few and far between.

Employment not employability

These findings reflect deeper economic and social problems. The retreat of government and unions in recent decades in favour of the free market has resulted in a less secure labour market for all, especially those recently entering it. This has meant that young people newly seeking employment have had to settle for lower-paid, less skilled jobs that are not commensurate with their education and training.

And the country remains troublingly elitist, as those born at the top have a proportionately greater chance to remain there than those born into the middle or lower sectors of society. This study mirrors an August 2014 report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission showing that those from the cozy club of the upper classes still dominantly populate high-ranking positions in both the public and private sector.

Nonetheless, the current government continues to repeat that the problem is not just employment but more fundamentally a lack of employability. David Cameron repeats a tired mantra that young people simply need to be more employable to be successful. One of his first statements as prime minister was that “by developing the right skills and jobs I am determined that the many, not the few, will share in the country’s prosperity”. Just last month at a roundtable with food and grocery CEOs he reiterated this vision of employability as a cure all for downward mobility:

I want to make sure young people know what opportunities are out there for them, so they can develop the skills they need to get themselves into good jobs and earn a living.

These remarks represent a pro-business shift from the promises of past governments of “full employment” to that of the present one of “full employability”. Here the problem lies not with corporations or a less activist government, but instead with “unemployable” job seekers. To solve this problem, young people need simply to “think enterprisingly”, while universities and schools must teach them the skills necessary to be properly employable.

Wake-up call

Yet this study shows why the answer lies with increasing employment not employability. As a spokesperson for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission commented, the study should be a “wake-up call for politicians from all parties”.

The government must recommit to expanding high-level employment opportunities. To do so means undertaking a radical change in priorities, similar to the ones that first created this upward mobility following World War II. This means moving away from a pro-market and pro-business austerity agenda and towards a pro-employment and pro-welfare one. It requires directly confronting the rampant inequality and elitism still underpinning this system. Britain has enough employable citizens, what it requires is more jobs and fair access to them.