Unemployment is on the rise again, and with it comes the rhetoric of the right.

We hear talk of the ‘workshy’, we hear people on benefits referred to as ‘scroungers’, and of a ‘dependency culture‘ in which it is suggested that the unemployed just aren’t trying to find work.

Mr Humphrys is neither the first nor the last person to talk about generational unemployment – although that of course is not the problem as he and his ilk see it; the real crime is generational benefit claiming. The idea that there are entire families who have been claiming state benefits generation after generation is a compelling one.

It’s also utter nonsense (which, thankfully, I’m not the only one pointing out).

The Department for Work and Pensions collects a lot of data about people who are claiming ‘out of work benefits’ – that’s the catch-all term for ‘any benefit you get when you aren’t working’; it includes sickness-related benefits (which seem to be a particular bugbear of many on the right).

Number of Out of Work Benefit Claimants - DWP figures, collated by

In February 2011, there were 2.8 million people who had been on out of work benefits for more than 2 years, of which 1.9 million had been claimants for 5+ years.

In February 2008 there were 2.9 million people who had been on out of work benefits for more than 2 years, of which 2.0 million had been claimants for 5+ years.

In February 2001 there were 2.9 million people who had been on out of work benefits for more than 2 years, of which  1.8 million had been claimants for 5+ years.

The numbers don’t change much, basically (as you can see for yourself). Which means that there are some people (around 2 million) who are pretty much permanently out of work.

Coincidentally, Disabled Living Foundation figures state that there are around 2.1 million disabled people living in the UK at the minute who are of working age but unable to work.

And then there’s another million-ish people who are periodically out of work for between two and five years – about the duration of an acute physical or mental illness. Or a recession.

An important point to make here is that it’s not the same million people – it can’t be. That’s not the way the figures work – if they’re out of work for longer than 5 years, they go into a different part of the DWP statistics. So in any one 2-5 year period, there are around a million people who are out of work, but then they go back to work (or at least stop claiming benefits).

Which also means that everyone else in the unemployment statistics (over 3 million people at the moment) is generally out of work for less than two years (again, not the same people each time they’re counted)

A generation is about 20 years.

I’ve already done the maths for you – but there aren’t many people in Britain who are unemployed for that long, at least not according to the DWP, and the vast majority of those are too disabled to work. Now call me a crazy wild-eyed socialist, but I’m pretty sure our society can be expected to support the tiny percentage of disabled people who will never be able to work.

People on out of work benefits are not idle scroungers, too lazy to work – they are, in the vast, overwhelming majority, taxpayers and citizens who are temporarily out of work. 

Our welfare system exists for this very reason – to support people when they need it most. We all pay into it, because we are a society.

And because we know that one day, we each may need it ourselves.

6 thoughts on “Scrounging

  • October 27th, 2011 at 22:28

    Oh, and thanks to Guy Palmer at The Poverty Site for collating the DWP data for me.

    I highly recommend visiting his site and looking through the statistics, if you’re into that sort of thing (and why wouldn’t you be?)

  • November 3rd, 2011 at 10:16

    Interesting blog but have to respectfully disagree on a few points.

    I used to work on the frontline of a jobcentre office and routinely saw families where nobody worked and had not done so for generations. One of the saddest sights in my life was an 18 year old signing on for the first time with his family watching on like it was some kind of rite of passage akin to the first shave.

    The problem is not as widespread as the right like to tell us but it is still there and something needs to be done to break the cycle.

    I agree though that something needs to be done to stop this victimising of the unemployed. Most are legitimate and don’t deserve to be tarred with the same brush as the genuine work shy underclass

    • November 3rd, 2011 at 13:38

      I agree that it must happen, and I’m sure there are areas of the UK where generational unemployment is more widespread than others.

      My point is really just that it’s not very common, at least in terms of the entire UK population (or even as a proportion of all unemployed people) – our perception of it, thanks to the media on the right, is that the problem is much larger than it is.

      It could still be dozens or (more likely) hundreds of families, though – and agree that it would certainly be better if none were in this situation.

  • November 6th, 2011 at 15:45

    You are right that intergenerational worklessness is vastly overplayed. Usually what happens is that statistics on workless households (households where nobody is in employment at a point in time)are cited incorrectly as evidence of intergenerational worklessness (nobody in the household has ever worked). There were a maximum of 20,000 intergnerationally workless households as of this time last year (a maximum because there’s reason to believe that many of these were households where the second generation has only recently left education). See link below. So we’re talking about tiny numbers: more detailed forthcoming research looking at families rather than households yields the same lesson.

    There is a positive statistical association between parents’ and childrens’ labour market experience: having a parent who experiences unemployment has some impact on whether you yourself will experience unemployment, independently of other factors like education, disability or being hit by a recession etc. although the other factors are generally much more important. Out of this well established finding media commentators and politicians have manufactured a ludicrous deterministic myth about ‘worklessness’ being some sort of inherited condition. It deserves to be challenged whenever it crops up.

    • November 6th, 2011 at 16:23

      Spot on.

      It’s nice to have numbers like that in the back pocket to shut down these ridiculous arguments from the right, suggesting that there’s some sort of massive, workshy underclass – your calculation of a maximum of 20,000 households (not a lot of people in real terms) is a pretty good counterpoint.

      I mean, obviously ‘no generationally workless households’ would be an ideal, but I think addressing the reasons millions more are unemployed is probably a better use of government time and money…

      (for similar reasons I like to keep abreast of the actual number of asylum seekers we have in the UK (around 22,000 at the moment) because it puts the lie to this idea that there are ‘droves of people just pouring in’)

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