As the trade unions awake from a decade of deep sleep and call for a wave of organised attacks against the austerity budget, I think it’s important that we get a grip on the timescales we’re talking about with these cuts, and the kinds of effects they may have.
There’s a temptation to fall into a narrative of fantasy. ‘The Cuts’, like an earthquake or vampiric shadow, will terrorise us. Without compassion or reasoning, It will weigh down upon the country like a scythe, slashing the poor and needy, crushing the working class. Some areas will be devastated by the plague: the North will be ravaged, London slums will reappear. 10 million unemployed, hundred of thousands on the streets…
The reality may be far less poetic, but in ways more insidious. While, as Reuben points out, we now have 2.5million people chasing 500,000 jobs, there are many millions more who are finding themselves in unfulfilling, boring jobs which they perhaps may otherwise have been able to avoid. This is for two reasons.
First, many people I know at the moment find themselves unemployed, lacking the career options that a few years ago would have laid open before them. For the moment, they find themselves with emptier lives, full of uncertainty but perhaps new opportunities. In 6 months or so, this very well may have changed. Faced with decreasing savings and increasing living costs (thanks recession), I’m sure I’ll start to know more and more people with 9-6 jobs, be it waitressing, temping or tutoring. These may be jobs that some people want to do, but others fall into without choice, and often without any of the perks we might associate with temporary jobs: autonomy, low-responsibility, etc.
This is the second reason: jobs themselves will get worse. With more temps and fewer positions, workers lose their bargaining abilities in negotiations, leading to more hours, less pay, more abuse from bosses and less camaraderie in the workplace, as workers are made to compete for the remaining jobs under fear of redundancy. And it will keep going. So while Jon might cry (quite rightly) ‘at least you have a job’ to those people who moan about the tube strikes, we should remember that the jobs people have may be getting worse, and they’re in these kinds of jobs for longer.
The long term underemployed isn’t something that’s going to be the strap line to a campaign, and the unions are right to point to increasing unemployment as focal part of the cuts. But the effects of unemployment knock onto the employed in a big way, and it is this slow, grinding change which may come to characterise the recession, not the looming scythe of fantasy.