The economic consequences of the financial downturn that started in 2008 are well familiar – they were immediately apparent in the high street shops that slammed their doors, and the jobs that disappeared. Less understood, but more insidious, are the devastating social repercussions, which would soon show themselves in everything from suicide rates to social club rolls. These are the focus of Tom Clark’s compelling book Hard Times: Inequality, Recession, Aftermath now available in paperback, which reveals how a crisis that began up in the towers of high finance would eventually come to haunt the streets below. In a three-part blog series, taking each element of his subtitle in turn, (read part 1, part 2), Clark explores the backdrop of economic inequality which left society frail – and made this slump so devastating.
The plight of people like Winston should now be easing – jobs, after all, are once again multiplying, as national income begins to rise. In great tracts of our communities, however, the ‘recovery’ doesn’t feel to be worth the name. The mood of the hour is “yes you can work, but it might be work as you used to understand it”. Permatemping, zero-hours contracts and mix-and-match part time positions are doing away with the very notion of “a job” in certain lines of work.
More recently, members of professions from shepherding to hotel chambermaids, have been getting told to pack their bags, and then come back as freelancers. The effect of all of this is, of course, labour which can be turned off and on like a tap for employers. For their staff, however, it means not only chronic insecurity, but also the loss of the social connections and the networks that come with dependable employment, in a fixed place, with a regular body of colleagues. Hard Times reports on a Yorkshire shop worker who would like to volunteer for local charities, but who cannot commit owing to the leash that his employers keep him on through a zero-hours arrangement.
In such ways, the free market in labour is straining the social fabric in poorer communities – and will continue to do so for years. We uncover deep psychological scarring, which could leave those hit with the sack after 2008 increasingly isolated for many years yet, even after they have found a new job. And, for the young generation in particular, we establish how dreams once regarded as within reach – of owning a home, or entering a secure profession – are increasingly beyond reach.
The last time economic forces unleashed this sort of a storm on society was the 1930s, and the response then was to put in place shared storm defences, through the creation of the welfare state. This time, by contrast, the approach is instead to tear these shared shelters down. Whatever happens to the economy, bedroom taxes, benefit caps and other retrenchments are set to make the poor poorer for as far as the eye can see.
Amid so much inequality, reviving the old argument for social insurance will not be easy: the better-off, who have been largely immune from redundancies, may feel they have nothing to insure against. New arguments, however, might yet resonate. It is not only the poor few, but the middling majority who have now been squeezed for several years. The important question for society, and perhaps for Britain’s looming election campaign too, is which of the many dividing lines is the most salient. Is the principle split that which divides the welfare-dependent poor from the squeezed but safe majority? Or might it instead be the great gulf between the rich and the rest.
Tom Clark has spent his career exposing and analysing poverty and inequality. He moved from the academic settings of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to the control-room of anti-poverty policy in Whitehall, under the last Labour government, and then to the Guardian where he writes about British politics and society. Clark teamed up with top sociologist, Anthony Heath, to explore the social effects, in a book which does not remain stuck in the ivory tower, but instead descends to the streets, and brings in the voices of those at the sharp end of the slump.
Hard Times is now available in paperback.
Image courtesy of ©athrine via flickr.