Magazine article Management Today

When Scroungers Became Jobless

Magazine article Management Today

When Scroungers Became Jobless

Article excerpt

Heartless Victorians felt the jobless were to blame for their wretched predicament. But, says Rhymer Rigby, even they had to see that unemployment was the mother of social unrest

A telling comment on our forebears' concerns about unemployment is to be found in the following piece of linguistic history. The word `unemployment' was first coined in a political-economic sense in 1888. Prior to that, most of the then great and good weren't that bothered about the question.

But as with every issue, there were those who took an interest. Some do-gooder was concerned enough to start jobless records in 1855. Before that, in 1816, pamphleteer Thomas Bunn was warning of an `accumulation of distress among the lower orders', and advocated a `new deal on a shoestring'. Ignoring his advice, he predicted, could lead to the kind of uprising the French had recently seen, where the aristocracy had been `tine first to suffer the consequences of their own neglects'. But it was to be 70 years before views such as Bunn's began to percolate through society as a whole.

With the exception of the era's philanthropists, the Victorians either pretended the jobless didn't exist or -- if their presence had to be acknowledged -- treated them with contempt. Those in this ignoble state had only themselves to blame: since the total wage pool was limited, their greed had obviously priced them out of the marketplace. Any suggestion of state-sponsored handouts was frowned upon. Unemployment benefit, said the Establishment, would probably damage wages and labour mobility, and, worse, encourage `reckless procreation'. The only thing worse than an idle scrounger, the Victorians reasoned, was a family of them.

These less than enlightened views prevailed well into the latter half of the 19th century. But change was afoot, fuelled mainly by increasingly vocal social and constitutional reform movements, and by a growing recognition that social unrest was the child of unemployment. By the 1880s, joblessness was being touted as the cause of social ills ranging from illegitimacy to theft.

The closing years of the century saw an increasing number of unemployment relief schemes -- attempts to keep a lid on social discontent. This ad hoc approach continued until 1911 when unemployment insurance was introduced (although it was only in 1922 that benefits records were used as the basis for male unemployment records, and only in 1948 that the concept of female unemployment was recognised by bureaucrats). …

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