In a thought-provoking piece, Jeremy Gilbert writes:
Hardly anyone looks back to the epoch of full employment as one which seems remotely culturally attractive. We might entertain time-travel fantasies of visiting Harlem in the 20s, Haight-Ashbury in 1967, or Paris at various points in the 19th or 20th centuries – but who wishes they could spend a week in Surbiton, 1955?
This is also the question asked in a recent paper by Jon Wisman and Michael Cauvel: why do workers not demand guaranteed employment?
Three facts give the question force. One is that technocrats now know, more than they did in the 70s and 80s, that unemployment not only has an economic cost in terms of lost output, but a massive psychological cost because the unemployed are significantly unhappier than those in work. For example, the ONS estimate that whereas only 2.9 per cent of those in work have low life-satisfaction (0-4 on a 0-10 scale) 12.9 per cent of the unemployed do.
Secondly, there is a huge amount of unemployment and under-employment now even though the proportion of working age people in work is at a post-1971 high. On top of the 1.7m officially unemployed there are 2.2m people out of the labour force who’d like a job and 3.5m people in work who’d like more hours. This adds up to 7.4 million people, or 18.1% of the working age population.
Thirdly, we can’t blame the optimism bias. There’s massive support for a well-funded NHS, which poses the paradox that everybody seems to want insurance against physical ill-health, but not against economic ill-health.
So, why is there so little demand for full employment?
One reason is that many older workers already enjoy some job security. Two-fifths of over-35s have been with their present employer for over ten years - although among men this proportion has fallen since the early 90s.
Also, though, it’s like the old joke about the man with the leaky roof: on sunny days he doesn't need to fix it and on rainy days he can’t get on the roof to do so. The assumption that good times will last means that policies for full employment aren’t put in place then but say Wisman and Cauvel:
Government debt rises in times of crises, providing the excuse of inadequate fiscal means….Gaining additional rights and protections is likely to seem like an implausible political goal for workers struggling to maintain what they already have.
And, they say – channeling Kalecki:
Guaranteed employment does not conform to the dominant ideology of capitalist societies which is generally internalized by practically everyone in the society, including workers.
This ideology, they say, manifests itself in several ways hostile to full employment policies. For example, the unemployed are blamed for their plight; governments are deemed to incompetent to implement proper macro policies or a jobs guarantee; and there’s a fear that union militancy will price workers out of jobs. In this sense, the lack of demand for full employment policies is another manifestation of the political dominance of the 1%. As Steven Lukes wrote:
Is it not the supreme and most insidious use of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable? (Power: a radical view)
All this raises a thought. Could it be that the main obstacle to full employment policies is not so much one of technical economics so much as ideology and politics?