Here is some good news. The August UK unemployment figures reveal a slight fall in the number of unemployed people, a drop of 46,000 to 2.56 million. The detailed figures show that men who took the initial impact of the recession are slowly finding their way back into work. That is the end of the good news.
For women and for young people, and thus for young women in particular, the economic outlook could hardly be gloomier. The number of 16-24 year olds looking for work remains stubbornly high at more than a million. Not only does this age group make up a worryingly high proportion of total joblessness, an increasing number of these young men and women are staying unemployed for months on end, becoming accustomed to having no job and losing all faith in finding one.
For women, too, the August figures show a bad situation deteriorating further. The number of those seeking work is now more than a million, an all-time high, according to the Fawcett Society which last March predicted that as public sector cuts got underway half a million more women would also be at risk of losing their jobs.
These are not jobs that will return in any future economic upturn and the Government has announced no strategy for replacing them. In some geographical areas the public sector has been the only significant employer of women. Ministers merely reaffirm the mantra that the private sector, in a proper deregulated framework, will eventually pick up the slack.
Given the planned further contraction of the public sector and that 70 per cent of the public sector workforce is female, it is certain that the burden of unemployment will continue to fall more heavily on women in the immediate future. The Fawcett Society reports that in some areas, 100 per cent of local authority jobs lost had been held by women.
There is cause for concern, too, at the nature of the jobs that are disappearing and about what kind of work will replace them. Local authorities and public services have traditionally offered positions of varying skill levels at lowish pay (compared to some private sector counterparts), offset by relatively better job security, structured career paths and terms and conditions that acknowledge the needs of parents.
The private sector is under no pressure at all to match these family-friendly values. Far from it. A substantial number of Conservative backbenchers favour radical deregulation and the dismantling of almost all existing protective legislation. Despite some dissent in the Lib-Dem ranks, the Chancellor and other senior figures insist that employers need, and should be given, freedom from working-hour directives, minimum wage laws and other “stifling” employment legislation.
This could mean, for example, zero-hour contracts or, last week’s Big Idea, "mini-jobs". Under the former, a worker would agree to be available for, say, 20 hours a week; in return an employer would guarantee, well ... nothing at all. The “mini-job” was proposed as a useful possibility for young school-leavers. It is a scheme borrowed from Germany whereby unemployed people can take on jobs of up to about €400 a month, losing some benefits (if they receive them) but paying no tax and insurance. There could hardly be a better blueprint for the creation of a new UK “precariat”.
The dangers of creating a class of disaffected young men and women who spend their important post-school or post-college years between dole and casual work have been spelt out by many. Young women who leave school or university and are unable to find jobs that offer further training or career structures are at even greater risk of blighted futures. They may find that they have barely put down roots in any career at all by the time they start a family. When they do find work, it will be in lower-paid jobs. If they are by now mothers they will continue in low-paid jobs or perhaps zero-hour contracts.
There are further ways in which the job market is becoming increasingly unfriendly to women. Part-time work has been an important option for parents. There are now eight million part-time workers, the highest number since comparable records began in 1992. But one and a half million of these part-time workers, both men and women, are actually looking for full-time work. It is becoming increasingly difficult for women who can only undertake part-time work to secure jobs they can combine with childcare.
Campaigning organisations such as the Women’s Budget Group and the Women’s Resource Centre, who tried to warn policy makers of the likely gender impact of the cuts at the time of the 2010 Emergency Budget, could justifiably argue that the consequences for women we are now seeing were not only the predictable outcome of Coalition policies, they were indeed very precisely predicted.
Soon after the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his emergency measures in June 2010, the Labour MP Yvette Cooper, a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, commissioned a gender audit from the House of Commons library. The detailed study of the likely impact of the Budget revealed that women would bear a disproportionate burden of the Budget cuts. Of the £8bn net revenue the measures were intended to raise by 2014-15, nearly £6bn would come from cuts to services and benefits to women.
The consequent closing down of opportunities for women comes after two decades of steady gains in education and employment and growing expectations. It had become commonplace to hear not only that girls had caught up with boys but in many educational achievements had outshone them. Teenage girls celebrating educational achievement have become something of a cliché in the media and, though there were clearly far from feminist reasons why newspapers preferred using pictures of photogenic girls rather than awkward teenage boys, such images reinforced the general perception that 21st century girls were going places. (For a satirical take on the media’s enthusiasm for pictures of shrieking, leaping teenage girls celebrating their “triple-As”, take a look at the very funny “It’s sexy A-levels” website.)
Earlier this month, the TUC expressed concern at the deeper social trends revealed by the gloomy workless figures. Its analysis, published to coincide with the unemployment figures, argued that young people faced “the toughest outlook since 1994”. Despite large numbers of young people in full-time education, the proportion of “NEETS” - those not in education employment or training - is, at 20.4 per cent, the highest it has been for 20 years. To find a comparable period of inactivity for this age group you have to go back to 1992, the period of recession following the Thatcher years.
But the TUC also noted another way in which we are turning the clock back. Young men are, once again, more likely than young women to be in work or education (80.6 per cent compared to 78.5 per cent). It is not a big difference. But is it possible that we will see the steady gains made by young women between 1992 and 2008 halted or reversed?