Intergenerational cultures of worklessness

A JRF report exploring the idea of ‘cultures of worklessness’ and whether they are passed down the generations was published today and it has already received a lot of press coverage and comment. The report was produced by researchers from Teesside and Glasgow Universities and involved fieldwork in some of the most deprived areas of Middlesbrough and Glasgow. The research, which found no evidence of ‘3 generations of worklessness’ within the same family, suggests that:

Policy-makers and politicians need to abandon theories – and resulting policies – that see worklessness as primarily the outcome of a culture of worklessness, held in families and passed down the generations

I won’t say too much more about the content of the report because it makes sense to encourage people to read it themselves.

I do, however, want to highlight two things which I think are important about the report: the strength of the arguement within in and the importance of it.

The researchers are clear that they made every effort to find families that exhibited a ‘culture of worklessness’ and were very conscious that people would claim that they had not looked hard enough. Indeed, some of the comments on newsapaper websites that have covered the report would suggest that JRF might have been better off asking members of the public to identify such families. Drawing on work by Declan Gaffney (who has published a very interesting blog on the ‘invention of worklessness’ ), the report highlights ONS stats which suggest that approximately only 0.5% of workless households ‘could be described as having members across generations who have never worked’, as can be  seen from the infographic below.


In terms of the field work, no interviewees were able to direct the researchers to families that fitted the criteria for 3 generations of worklessnesss and, despite talking to and meeting over 30 practitioners working in the local areas:

none was able to direct us to potential recruits for the study … when pushed to identify families where ‘three generations had never worked’ these practitioners were unable to do so, despite their apparent belief in the existence of such families and their close engagement with local communities.

The approach of the researchers has not yet been challenged and organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice and Policy Exchange who have talked previously about deviant cultures have yet to respond to the report, to the best of my knowledge.

The second point I would like to make about the research is how important it is at the present time. The report contains quotes about worklessness from figures such as Chris Grayling, Gordon Brown and Dame Carol Black, and Iain Duncan Smith frequently uses examples of such behaviour in his speeches:

“And those who have no interest in work … because they have seen their parents, their neighbours and their entire community sit on benefits for life … have simply had their destructive lifestyle confirmed..”


“This entrenched culture of  worklessness and dependency is not only the source of soaring welfare bills”

Even the DWP Social Justice Strategy has a section on ‘challenging the culture of worklessness’ . The idea of cultures of worklessness has also permeated down to local authorities and their partners and here are a few examples that I have come across in the North East:

Research carried out in 2010 … revealed low aspiration levels in some areas of the borough, in many cases as a result of second and third generation family unemployment.

The cultures embedded in second or third generation workless households, including benefit dependency, need to be changed

… highlighted a number of areas of concern, including … the problems of cultures of low aspiration and worklessness in some of our communities,

We will work towards enabling people to break the cycle of benefit dependency; encouraging a culture of work in every household

It will be interesting to see what the response of politicians, policy makers and practitioners is to this report. Let’s keep our eyes and ears peeled for the next mention of 2, 3, 4 or even 5 (yes I have heard it) generations of unemployed. Of course, the best way of proving the existence of intergenerational cultures of worklessness is to find families that fit the bill. And yet, nobody has found any such families – and certainly not in large enough numbers to suggest it is a cultural phenomenon.

N.B. In the interests of full disclosure, two of the authors of the report are colleagues of mine. Professor Tracy Shildrick is a member of the North East Child Poverty Commission and Professor Rob Macdonald is a member of the Institute for Local Governance Management Committee, where I am based.


2 responses to “Intergenerational cultures of worklessness

  • (Baroness) Ruth Lister

    I’m looking forward to reading the report Stephen. Your blog is really helpful in highlighting some of the political implications. This evidence is going to be invaluable in fighting the pernicious cut in benefits announced last week. In particular it challenges the conventional wisdom that only those in work are ‘strivers’ and that all those out of work on benefit are ‘skivers’.

    • Stephen Crossley

      Hello Ruth, many thanks for your comment. I agree that this report, backed up with other similar work will hopefully be used more effectively by politicians and policy makers who are looking for ways to counter a very strong and negative narrative. I think one of the strongest findings from one of Tracy and Rob’s other projects on the ‘low-pay, no-pay’ cycle’ was that ‘interviewees, trapped in the low pay,
      no-pay cycle over years expressed great personal commitment to employment’ and this finding is again repeated in this study, despite experiences which would deter a lot of people.

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