The paradox of unemployment is that while millions of people worldwide are idle because there are ‘no jobs’ for them, everywhere there is useful, urgent and important work waiting to be done: in house-building, education, caring for the elderly and disabled, cleaning up cities, crime prevention and numerous other fields. Unemployment is often a source of demoralization and fear. Older people made redundant may experience a loss of self-esteem; most people need to feel that they have a useful contribution to make to society, that they can pay their own way in the world, and that they have some control over how much they earn. In some cases people have used redundancy pay-offs to start new businesses, but they are still the minority. The social costs of widespread unemployment among older people are perhaps not yet fully recognized. For the young and disadvantaged the problem is equally difficult. In some countries unemployment runs as high as 50 per cent among these groups. Many of today’s young adults, especially those with lower educational attainments, may be faced with a lifetime of unemployment. A society that calls itself civilized must face these problems urgently or the psychological and social cost will be immense.

The future

Attempts to tackle the problem must be rooted in a more flexible concept of work. Already the idea of a family’s ‘breadwinner’ devoting his or her entire adult life to full-time waged work outside the home has begun to be superseded. An increasing number of people spend time on equally productive but more home-orientated work. Many experts are predicting that future patterns of employment wil entail ever larger numbers of employees working from their home, using a computer terminal to store information and contact other members of their company as the need arises. This de-centralization of work activities. It is argued, would not only be more economical in the long run – in business terms and on individual level -but would also contribute to a less stressful lifestyle, and to a fuller, more satisfactory family life and increased productivity.

Other people have rediscovered neglected crafts and trades and breathed new life into these sectors of work. Other approaches include worker co-operatives and collectives, job sharing and forms of temporary employment. Wide-scale government action is also needed. With state backing, large task forces could be set up of predominantly young people, paid a minimum wage. Skilled older people could help as trainers and advisers. These task forces would be a form of long- or short-term non-military national service, and could tackle many of the urgent jobs currently considered economically non-viable in our society. Assignments might include leisure centre development, environmental conservation, care of the disabled and so on. Such a scheme is likely to provide the psychological benefits of work, as well as allowing people to develop worthwhile and useful abilities and skills.