GUEST BLOG: Dr Liz Gordon – Getting nevvie off the couch


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.

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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!).


  1. The purpose of state-sponsored education is to provide pupils/students with enough skill and knowledge to make them useful to the empire whilst denying them the skills and knowledge that would make them dangerous to the empire. (i.e. that money is created out of thin air by central banks and has no intrinsic value; that the charging of interest is at the root of many of the ills that plague society; that all industrial systems are dependent on the burning of fossil fuels; that industrially produced food is of low nutritional value; that humans -especially industrious industrial humans- are ‘progressively’ destroying the environment that makes life-as-we-know-it possible etc.).

    Now that education has become corporatised and diluted, it serves little purpose other than as a mechanism for consumption of energy and resources and the creation of employment.

    What EVERYONE needs to understand is that current economic-social arrangements have NO FUTURE because the energy supply and the environment needed to maintain them are in terminal decline.

    Needless to say, the masses of ignorant and stupid people -trained by the system to be ignorant and stupid- who are living comfortable lives at the expense of the next generation will continue to live ignorant comfortable lives until they can’t.

  2. Dr Gordon,in your research did you ever study the impact of the ‘YPTP’ schemes of the early eighties? If so what conclusions did you draw?

  3. 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!

    And parroted by no less than Bill English in 2016;

    “A lot of the Kiwis that are meant to be available [for farm work] are pretty damned hopeless. They won’t show up. You can’t rely on them and that is one of the reasons why immigration’s a bit permissive, to fill that gap… a cohort of Kiwis who now can’t get a license because they can’t read and write properly and don’t look to be employable, you know, basically young males.”


    And a year later;

    “One of the hurdles these days is just passing a drug test. Under workplace safety you can’t have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can’t pass that test.”


    Which creates the narrative that it’s not neo-liberalism that is failing – but young people who are willfully “not playing the game”. After all, it can’t be the “free market” at fault, can it? Oh perish the thought…!

    • Agreed thats how neo liberal agenda works by individualising falure and socialising success amoungst the well to do. I think the system kind of wants to remove people it does not want or have any corporate value.
      Its a sad state when the only values out there appreciated are those that the aspirational well to do hold. And that really means society appears very homogenic in its makeup ie everyone looks the same aspires to be the same etc.

    • “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!”

      Yes , i had noticed that however I was interested in the specific scheme and Dr Gordon’s opinion on its effectiveness (or not) and whether she thought it successfully addressed claimed issues of lack of motivation or ‘life skills’ amongst the participants involved…..I consider it (or a variation of) may have potential as contemporary solution.

  4. Dr Gordon – and Kelvin Davis – are both talking about a minority of nevvies – and they both know it.

    Most young folk will either try their wings in employment, even if, like their elders before them, they have to ‘come to town’ to do so. There was a reason for the provision of boarding hostels for young people all the way through to the Awful 80s. Kids came to town for work and training.

    The others will go into family enterprises, or start their own first entrepreneurial ventures.

    The minority, made up of kids who’ve been shuffled around like lost parcels because they’re slow, or stroppy, or baffled beyond reason and have dubious ‘friends’ – they are the couch nevvies. And many of them have grown some pretty tough shells to survive hard times.

    The last few numbers before the 100% are always the hardest to crack.

    Some of those nevvies will definitely respond to a rark up and placements that let them see how ‘decent’ folk’ behave to win income and approval and stability. And let them do the same.

    Others – it won’t suit at all. The minority of the minority.

    Some will need persistent assistance over months to years. There’s trust to build, for a start.

    The others – a few, remember – they’ll probably be tough blokes and sheilas all the way into their 40s before the light comes on and family, stability, legacy and fresh start become attractive. That’s their walk to make. Offers can be extended – yet – it’s their walk, and they’ll do the best they can. Anything else is patronising interference.

    And, for Dr Gordon – ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. I suspect Kelvin Davis has added a handful of salt to the tucker. The queue for the trough starts just over there…

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