Thursday, August 12, 2010

No Job On The Horizon

More than one in three children in Liverpool live in jobless households.

That is a headline, and though it is statistically accurate it needs unpacking.

Not every adult in a child’s household is jobless because they cannot find paid employment. They may be the principal carer for young children, or – increasingly – the only carer; they may be a retired grandparent living with their child and grandchildren; they may be in full-time education; or they may be unable to work through long-term health issues. Then there are the far too many people who are offered jobs that will leave them financially worse-off than living on benefits – not because benefits are too generous, but because too many employers find loopholes around minimum wage and other working practice legislation. In each of these cases, these jobless adults may have an expectation of work as being a normal activity, and even an intention to return to work at some point in the future.

That is not to say that paid employment is the only valid choice – indeed, it is to recognise that for many people, they contribute to society in other ways – but it is to recognise that work is a normal human activity. When, however, children grow up in homes where, for whatever reason, no adult works, they do not see that work is normal and that to work should be – albeit often is not – healthy and positive. Indeed, when the lack of employment opportunities is as prevalent as it is in Liverpool, which has the highest level of unemployment of any city in the country, work is increasingly not a normal activity.

Notwithstanding the many and complex reasons, more than one in three children in Liverpool live in jobless households, and in Clubmoor ward, where we live, it is higher than in most: and this is a serious problem.

More than what they are taught at school, children learn from what is modelled to them in the home. If going to work is not modelled, it does not – it very almost cannot – become learnt behaviour. Those school-leavers who do get jobs increasingly struggle with the self-discipline of going to work, on time, every day bar sickness: very often such behaviour has not been modelled even indirectly, by getting them to school on time each day through the primary years.

Rather than growing up with an expectation that one will, by choice or otherwise, experience seasons of unemployment through life – which is actually a very healthy expectation; far healthier than the assumption that ‘you can have it all’ – the current generation of Liverpool children are growing up with little or no expectation of ever finding employment.

Where I live, young men roaming the streets during the day, or driving round in fours deliberately disregarding the speed-limit, are highly visible. On the lookout for trouble (whether to avoid it or cause it: Clubmoor got its name from being a meeting-point for gang violence, and history runs deep in a place – waiting to be redeemed). And these are the role-models our children see.

Overwhelmingly, across cultures and ages, the default pattern of humanity has been to be apprenticed to our parents. True, throughout history children have moved out from following in their parents footsteps, out of a sense of ‘calling’ (religious or otherwise: personality; dreams of what lies beyond the horizon, literal or metaphorical) or hard necessity: but, they have moved out from an established starting-point. And whenever humanity overwhelmingly does something, it suggests that we are ‘hard-wired’ (whether by design or advantage) for that behaviour.

This is not a thing of the distant past. We see it in generations of ship-welders and coal-miners and mill-workers – and we see the deep impact on a community when a monopolising employer closes down. We see it, albeit less and less, among farmers and deep-sea trawler-hands. We see it in children of electricians and mechanics and doctors and lawyers and criminals and gangsters and teachers and clergy following in their footsteps. Some see it as a lack of imagination. Some see it as propping-up a class system that keeps people in their place: the limits of such a view being its failure to recognise that this pattern is not restricted to class cultures, and its collusion with the lie that some ‘places’ are better than others. The urbanisation, and excessive professionalism, of modern working practices have eroded familial apprenticeship, but then, the Myth of Progress is the great lie of Modernity: sometimes, and certainly at a dead-end, you have to retrace your steps, revisit the wisdom of earlier generations.

So, what do you do when your parents, and grandparents, are unemployed? Well, you are apprenticed to unemployment: that is how humans construct society.

So, what do you do when your whole generation is apprenticed to unemployment? Well, you need to hear a call out from that place, into the unknown, beyond the horizon...

We are faced with a generation who need to hear a call. In my view, that call is most fully articulated by the voice of the God who made them, and wants to give them hope and a future. To those who do not know God’s voice, he will use whatever means possible, to sow dreams, to open doors.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, and opportunity, facing the Church today is whether we are willing to be a channel for that call to be heard, and whether we will partner with God and others to support – through adoption and apprenticeship; through micro-loans; through micro-businesses; through advocacy – those who ‘leave home’ to follow...

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