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500 days of Summer, 2009 (Film Still)
500 days of Summer, 2009 (Film Still)

Young people don’t want to work. Now what?

New research has found that nearly one in ten young people never intend to start working

Kim Kardashian was right when she said “nobody wants to work these days”. The signs are everywhere: membership of the r/antiwork subreddit has rocketed in recent years – at present, the group has over two million members. Millions of people left their jobs in 2021 as part of ‘The Great Resignation’. By now, reams have been written about the death of girlboss culture and the end of ambition. Additionally, new research from City & Guilds has found that one in ten young people who have not yet entered the workforce never intend to do so.

While discussing this new stat on Politics Live last week, host Jo Coburn described it as “shocking”. But is it, really? We’ve witnessed the degradation of the myth of meritocracy in real-time: house prices rose by 33 per cent over the course of the 2010s, making homeownership a pipe dream for anyone without wealthy parents. Rents rose by 11 per cent between 2021 and 2022. In October, inflation hit its highest point since 1981, and as a result nearly half of young people are worried about not being able to afford essentials due to inflation. It’s arguably never been more obvious that hard work doesn’t pay.

Basically: there’s too much stick, and not enough carrot. “The social contract is breaking down. It’s not working,” writer James Ball said on a recent episode of the New Statesman podcast. “Work doesn’t pay. You can be in professions and you can’t get a house. We haven’t had a pay rise, collectively as a nation, since 2007. People are doing everything ‘right’ and not getting the living standards of their parents at their age.” As Ball suggests, the financial crash has had long-lasting consequences: as the Resolution Foundation reported in 2019, young people’s pay and prospects have been forever “scarred” by the events of 2008. Additionally, new research from the RSA has found that 63 per cent of young people in full-time work experience financial precarity, rising to 79 per cent of those receiving universal credit.

Eve Livingston is a journalist and author of Make Bosses Pay: Why We Need Unions. “Throughout young people’s lifetimes, work has paid less and less and conditions have worsened as successive governments have cut protections and dismantled union power,” she says. “In that context, it’s no surprise that young people are questioning the value of work or don’t see the point in doing it at all – if you know that work won’t pay for you to have any quality of life then there might seem to be little point in doing it just for the sake of it.”

It’s not always been this way. As anthropologist David Graeber pointed out in one interview, “the sort of 60s counterculture, the sort of wild and the swinging London of the time was totally a product of the welfare state. All those bands, you know, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles – all those guys had been on the dole and been on relief.” Even middle-class creatives were able to sign on without too much trouble up until the mid-1980s. In this Guardian article, Tim Lott recalls that his cousin, despite living in a city with myriad job opportunities, chose to sign on: “When I asked her why, she said simply that it was because she liked it,” he wrote.

The tide only started to turn in the mid-1980s with the rise of Thatcher, and by now the benefits system is totally decimated. Working age benefits are 7.5 per cent lower than they were in 2009, and anyone who’s tried to access Universal Credit will know that it’s a bureaucratic nightmare with countless hoops to jump through. The idea that swathes of people are ‘scroungers’ who ‘choose’ to sign on is now ludicrous: for a single person living outside London, your benefits are capped at £257.69 a week – an unlivable amount. This attitude which pours scorn on people who admit to not wanting to work is also part of the problem: by now, the idea of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ is so deeply ingrained in our society that a person’s self-worth is bound up in their employment status and job title. Thankfully, there are signs this is beginning to change as Gen Z reaches working age.

@varietymagazine The Kardashians share their advice for women in business 💼 @kimkardashian @Kris @Kourtney ❤️ @Khloé Kardashian ♬ original sound - Variety

Evidently, though, while anti-work sentiment is growing, surviving without a job is virtually impossible unless you have very rich parents. “The dismantling of the welfare state alongside the weakening of unions and the slashing of protections has led to a situation where young people are looking around them and seeing very few options – work doesn't pay, but there’s also no safety net for those who can’t or don’t do it,” Livingston adds. “In that context, it’s no wonder that many land on disillusionment and apathy about work and about their ability to progress and succeed in life more generally.”

Arguably, ‘work’ itself isn’t the issue. We will always need to work: the pandemic highlighted the indispensability of ‘key workers’, after all. Instead, the problem lies in the way work is currently structured. There’s a dearth of ‘good’ – well-paid, secure, and fulfilling – jobs, and a surfeit of ‘bullshit jobs’. Research published at the start of this year found that a third of the 18- to 34-year-olds who reentered the workforce post-lockdown took up insecure gig work, which has previously been linked to poor mental wellbeing. Since the invention of the weekend in the early 20th century, we’ve witnessed huge technological advances which have bolstered efficiency and productivity, and yet seen no reduction in working hours. In 2019, the World Health Organisation reclassified workplace burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Maybe it’s not that young people don’t want to work – it’s that they don’t want to work in these conditions. 

So, what’s to be done about this? Join a union, Livingston suggests. “Young people who are disillusioned with work should look to unions for solidarity and to channel their energy into something positive that can actually change things for the better,” she says. “There are certain policy changes that could help make work better, and give us more control over our lives — a four-day week, stronger protections in the workplace, more regulation of the gig economy, for example. All of those are best fought for and most achievable by acting collectively with the weight of a union behind you.”