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Why we should be bothered about long-term funemployment

It’s not often that I thank my lucky stars that I’m middle aged, but when I read articles like this, I’m glad I’m 42 not 22.

This article is one of many I’ve seen recently bemoaning the lot of young people, desperate for jobs in ‘cool’ industries like media or politics, who end up working for literally months (and some times years on end) for free. Not even minimum wage, but nada. Sweet FA.

Even the Daily Mail was writing about it the other day, while the whole phenomenon is talked about in great detail in Ed Howker and Shiv Malik’s excellent book Jilted Generation. Shiv spoke recently at a meeting of my local Labour party, but sadly I was too bogged down by work to go (and it was a very cold night).

To an old timer like me, Jilted Generation is an album by 90s rave act The Prodigy, but joking the apart, the book (which I read last year) points to a sad truth that if you’re the wrong side of 30 (ie young) then life ain’t going to be easy unless you’re very, very rich indeed.

If mummy and daddy have bags of cash then you don’t have to worry about finding a job that pays for boring things like rent or food. You can take all the internships you need to land the job in telly or journalism, you can make your short film, paint your masterpiece or launch your political career.

Obviously this has always been the case. When I first worked in media back in the early 90s, I did some work experience, which led to paid work – on The Sunday Express – of all places. Having this experience meant that I could get a proper job – advertised in a paper – as a trainee researcher at GMTV. In the golden days of Anthea and Eamonn – we’re talking a LONG time ago.

I am lucky enough to have lived most of my life in London and – as I’ve often said – am an over educated middle class ponce. I did not have to face the tough choices faced, for example, by the students I work with, many of whom are born into very deprived backgrounds. But I think it highly unlikely that I would have chosen a career where I would have had to work for free for an extended period. Like most young people I wanted my independence. I wanted to leave home. I wanted a paycheck.

I also doubt that my parents would have wanted to fund me for years on end in some kind of employment limbo. They would have thought it was ridiculous and would definitely have talked me out of it. They’d have told me to become an English teacher – I nearly did this aged 22 and now find myself doing exactly this in my 40s. A destiny I just couldn’t avoid….and I actually really enjoy it.

Which brings us to the concept of the funemployed. I heard about this concept the other day – it basically refers to young people that once might have been referred to as Trustafarians. Work is not really a major worry as they are bank rolled by family money. The funemployed are uber Trustafarians in that they are the children of parents so wealthy that they too have never worked – a kind of perverse mirror image of the generations of long-term unemployed so hated by the right wing press.

The funemployed are perfect intern material as they can dither about for years without having to worry about such sordid things as money. Some of them might be talented and creative – I’m not one of these simple minded lefties who thinks all rich or posh people are stupid – while others might amount to nothing. Some of them might go on to do great things. Because they have the time to make mistakes. It’s that obvious.

Some might wonder if this matters. Who cares if everyone who works in telly or newspapers is posh and rich? Who cares if only wealthy people go into politics? These are elite occupations and not appropriate careers for young people from the working or even the middle classes.

I think it matters a hell of a lot. The media shapes our perceptions and if all the people who work in media are rich, then their views are the only views that get a real airing. Even worse is the fact that increasingly only wealthy people are putting themselves forward for political careers – on both sides.

They are the only people who can afford the time to do unpaid internships working for MPs or work part time in order to devote themselves to local politics. Obviously there are exceptions – there will always be extraordinary people out there who buck the trend – but it concerns me that it’s getting harder and harder for most young people to escape either the corporate treadmill or an unsatisfying series of dull entry level jobs.

Obviously I’m an optimist and a dreamer and I know that what’s true today may not be true in five, ten or twenty years time. My own life time has seen extraordinary changes. But I do think our young people deserve a bit more of a chance. And not just those from the long term funemployed.

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