I watched Alan Bennet’s wonderful ‘The Lady in the Van’ this week. So brilliant on that crucial space between humanity and property, where the best and worst of being human plays out. On the one hand, we have the high stakes property-owners who, in claiming a small piece of land from the hordes, and reimaging the area as ‘middle class’, then have to constantly patrol the boundaries of their space to ensure no incursions from without. Standards must be kept. On the other, there is the diverse melting pot of London, not only ethnically but also in terms of age, mental health, background and myriad forms of disadvantage, who constantly ignore the aspirations of the residents and play out their lives as much as possible as they wish. Fascinating. If you haven’t seen it, do so!
I want to pick up on Kelvin Davies various discourses on a category that others have named ‘youf’, and he called the ‘nevvies’. Like the class issues in ’Lady’, the issue of ‘youf’ as ‘risky creatures’ is perennial. In New Zealand, the morals of the young were first attacked in the 1950s, when a milk bar in Lower Hutt was identified as a hangout for youth involved in questionable (i.e. sex) practices and two middle class girls murdered the mother of one in the notorious Parker-Hulme killing. An upstanding pillar of the community, Oswald Mazengarb, was commissioned to investigate this ‘juvenile delinquency’. His report was delivered to every house in the land, and urged parental control, Christian values and far less hanky-panky. The report went straight into the dustbin of history!
At the time there was full employment in New Zealand. Anyone leaving school at any age could walk straight into a job, there were plenty of apprenticeships and negotiated ‘awards’ meant that wages were adequate. People got married young and women tended to give up work at once, focussing on making homes and babies. It was pretty toxic socially (James K Baxter’s immortal description of 1950s marriage as “Two birds that pecked in one fouled nest” probably got it about right), but for the most part it was a poverty of spirit, not of resources, that were troubling.
Unemployment was essentially eliminated in New Zealand after the Depression and did not re-appear until the 1970s. Youth unemployment in particular began to rise from about 1977, leading to a number of government interventions. At first these involved supply-side interventions, in particular the creation of ‘temporary’ job schemes on youth rates of pay for periods of around 6 months. Such an approach recognised that there were not enough jobs and were created as a stop-gap measure.
However, by the mid-1980s this view of unemployment as a systemic issue was chucked out, in favour of the neo-liberal perspective that unemployment is purely the fault of the person. Too little education, too little skill, not the right attitude, too lazy or has no motivation! Since then, for over 30 years, we have treated young people with no work as if they are inadequate humans, needing more training, better attitudes, a ‘boot camp’ (i.e. what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!) and a general pulling up of socks.
In short, while the problems that keep nevvies on the couch reside in systems and practices in the outside world, the solution is deemed to be in correcting the couchiness of the youth (oooh look, a new word for the upcoming new year). This is why the spat between Kelvin Davies and Jacinda Ardern became so important earlier this month. Are we about punishing youth for their couchiness (it’s a good word) by forcing them into so-called ‘work for the dole’, or are we to offer them the dignity of real work for real wages, albeit on a temporary basis?
At the moment, the main policy response is the so-called ‘youth guarantee’, which is not a guarantee at all, but simply a year or two of ‘catch up’ training that helps the young people get (mainly) NCEA level 2. I have researched in this field and the evidence is very clear. Such courses, and the achievement of qualifications, make disadvantaged young people feel positive and optimistic about themselves. Many of the courses include significant pastoral components to assist with the burden of social problems these ‘youf’ bring with them.
While the optimism continues after the course is completed, unfortunately the structural impediments to employment continue, and unfortunately the Ministry of Education’s own work on the youth guarantee demonstrates that the scheme has had no impact on the ability gain employment. So in reality it is back to the couch.
My own view is that the policy work needed to re-engage youth requires making the youth guarantee a proper guarantee of education and training into employment. Young people completing a catering course, for example, should then be given a period of work experience on proper wages with a caterer. A mix of full and partial subsidies could create many positions.
Reducing youth unemployment also needs to be a prime focus of regional development. In places like Gisborne, there are simply no jobs for those young people graduating from training courses. Surely a mix of government and iwi development can work to create opportunities in such areas?
Nevvie is on the couch because of 30 plus years of neo-liberal policies. He (she) likely has social or health issues, including drug use, depression and family breakdown or even abuse. He (she) needs to be provided with opportunities that are exciting and achievable and that awaken his (her) own skills and aspirations. A two generation cycle needs to be broken and it won’t be easy or cheap to do this. But it must be done. Our prisons are full of men (and some women) who have given up on society because we gave up on them. Let’s get nevvie off the couch in 2018, increase meaningful employment, reduce incarceration and shake off the miasma of toxic neoliberalism.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).