There is an interesting notion that surrounds the debate about benefits and the introduction of the Universal Credit, that of the 'work incentive'. A recent blog on this site suggested that nobody in their right mind would want to come off a cosy life on benefits for something like a 50 pence financial gain. There is a presumption in this argument that people do not really want to work, that they would rather sit around and do nothing, take money off the state and only a noticeable financial gain could possibly entice them to work. To me this is a bizarre notion. Is work not incentive enough?
Sadly, perhaps the answer is no. From my own experience of being unemployed and talking to unemployed people I have noticed that there is a general reluctance or resistance to work. 'I can't be arsed' is a more common statement than most people would like to admit. Yes, it is true that the jobs market is incredibly hard at the moment but it is also true that whilst unemployment has risen so has the number of foreign workers (by around 500 a day). So if work in itself is not an incentive, why is this the case?
The Archbishop of Canturbury recently attacked a 'culture of entitlement' in the banking sector. I think he could well have applied this phrase to our whole society. Work as an incentive to move off benefits should be immeasurable and driven by a desire to unburden society and fend for oneself. In a nutshell to give oneself dignity and pride. In general our society has no regard such notions because people feel they have a right to welfare money, it is their money, to which they are entitled.
I believe a curious mixture of socialism and capitalism led us to this point. Firstly, the welfare state and its assurances of care from cradle to grave for the most part took away the incentive of danger, and replaced it with sleepy assurance. Whilst from the other side, rampant commercialism taught us selfishness, vanity and the idea of 'instant success'. The concoction has been lethal. Too many people wait for the 'right job' (a movie star?) without any sense of duty to the rest of society. Alongside this UK society seems to have a sneering attitude to lower level employment that does not help, the 'McJob' tag being an obvious example.
There are of course other reasons why work may not be an incentive. There is a cycle of unemployment for example, repeated studies show that children who grow up in workless homes are far more likely to struggle to find work in later life than those from working homes. Parallel to this is the factor of mental health. Where there is no work there is often low confidence (and vice versa). As we have become increasingly individualised traditional support mechanisms have dissipated.
There is, however, clearly no easy solution to these problems, and certainly mere financial incentives will not be enough (although they can play a part). As always, I believe we must focus on the young, introducing something similar to what I suggested in my youth unemployment essay, making flexibility and work an integral part of the education system might be a good starting point. I also believe that ensuring all benefits recipients are required to volunteer in their local community might also be a step in the right direction.
Whatever is done, the UK needs its motivation back.