When we analyse the justifiability of different education policies as well as various governmental interventions in the job market, we typically do so on the assumption that there is something bad about unemployment – indeed, there are many things bad about unemployment. Whilst this assumption is no doubt correct, I suspect that it is often helpful to be more precise about what exactly is bad about unemployment. This is because each of these bads may admit of very different solutions.
It is common to begin by noting that unemployment can be stigmatising, such that individuals who are unemployed are subject to others’ negative attitudes. This can be experienced as disrespectful and damaging to one’s self-confidence. It is significant that proponents of these attitudes typically defend their views on moralistic grounds: “The unemployed should be stigmatised because they are sponging off of the state – off of others’ efforts!”
Even if the underlying moral belief were true, these stigmatising attitudes would remain unjustified. In part, this is for the familiar reason that people are unemployed not because they don’t want to work, but instead because they lack the opportunities to do so. There are also many revealing inconsistencies here: public vitriol is rarely directed at middle-class stay-at-home parents in the same way that it is directed at those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This suggests that there are other forces at play.
Putting these issues aside, we are left with two choices. The first is to pursue measures that increase employment opportunities so that fewer people are subject to the kind of stigmatisation that I have mentioned. This is the route that is most commonly favoured. Whilst there are certain benefits to this approach, it has certain costs as well. In particular, those who are likely ‘to benefit’ from these measures may well end up with toilsome jobs on very low pay. Indeed, it is not at all clear to me that unemployment is much less bad at all.
The second option is to pursue measures designed to change public attitudes about unemployment. For example, we could encourage people to see unemployment as an acceptable life-style choice, which we ought not to stigmatise. Perhaps it is a choice that we may even welcome, in much the same way that many parents do when their child decides to take a gap year.
A connected part of this proposal is that we try to move away from defining individuals in terms of their roles within the job market. It should be possible for individuals to earn the recognition of their peers and fellows citizens even if unemployed. Again, many people’s attitudes are curiously inconsistent here: middle-class stay-at-home parents typically receive a kind of recognition that is often denied to unemployed parents from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
In short, I am calling for the liberalisation of attitudes towards an individual’s decision not to work. Plainly, education has a fundamentally important role to play in realising this possibility. Of course, this is not to say that we can be confident of effecting change quickly.
Is this solution a silver bullet? No. Obviously, even if public attitudes towards unemployment became much less persecuting, unemployment may remain bad for several reasons. First and foremost, unemployment deprives individuals of an additional valuable source of income. My more modest claim is only that changing public attitudes in the way I have suggested would be an important step in the right direction.