Social Change and the Experience of Unemployment

By Duncan Gallie; Catherine Marsh et al. | Go to book overview

1
The Experience of Unemployment

DUNCAN GALLIE AND CATHERINE MARSH


1. THE CONTEXT

In the 1980s unemployment in Britain rose to levels that were unprecedented since the great inter-war recession of the 1930s. Levels of unemployment were historically low in the 1950s and 1960s, began to rise in the early 1970s, and, then climbed very steeply after the second 'oil shock' of 1978-9. Since the mid- 1980s a period of decline in the official rate was followed by another sharp upturn in unemployment. While the underlying similarity of pattern between many of the advanced societies suggests that global forces were at work, making unemployment an issue over which market economies may not have full control, the rise in unemployment in Britain during the early 1980s was particularly steep. Britain moved from being a country with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the OECD to one with among the highest rates in a very short period of time.

An intriguing mythology has grown up around unemployment as a political issue. Unlike inflation, it is argued, the burden of unemployment falls on the shoulders of relatively few people, and is therefore tolerable politically to the vast majority. However, the picture this suggests of relative unconcern by the majority for the plight of the minority bears no comparison to reality. Gallup interviewers ask a monthly quota sample of adults in Britain what they think is the 'most urgent problem' facing the country today. Unemployment dominated the replies throughout the 1980s, being the issue most frequently named as either the most urgent or the second most urgent problem. Other political events such as the Falklands War barely dented the prominence of unemployment as an issue. Furthermore, the time-course of concern over unemployment tracked the time-course of the official

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