This month’s employment statistics in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, confirmed a growing trend – the victims of the economic slump since 2008 have been primarily men. This may not be a politically popular, but it is indisputable.
As discussed before, in fact public sector employment has barely fallen and in fact, due to “increments” and other wee bonuses here and there, public sector pay in fact rose markedly last year in Northern Ireland (so much for “re-balancing the economy” and “cuts”). Public sector employment is disproportionately female – indeed, as a result, in 2007 female unemployment in Northern Ireland was the lowest of any EU region!
On the other hand, the sector which was almost wiped out by the recession was the construction sector. Construction workers are disproportionately, indeed almost entirely, male. Businesses of 20 became sole traders, literally; bricklayers once choosing jobs have been forced to look elsewhere; and in many cases associated firms (e.g. quantity surveyors) have had to lay off the majority of their staff too. The severity of the hardship caused to people who were working willingly and working hard has been shocking. But you’ll not see too many Assembly motions addressing it in any remotely serious way.
The construction boom based on the property bubble and an entirely false sense of wealth caused by government over-spending and mad bank lending was never real, as such. It is not coming back, nor should it be encouraged to come back, because you cannot just keep obliterating the countryside to build houses people cannot really afford to live in. However, a lot of people who worked in it are now unemployed or underemployed – that is the problem.
It gets worse. I have argued before that the world has changed and that the issue is education, not employment per se. While girls fare reasonably in our academically based education system, boys struggle. The system is based around a society which existed more than a century ago: frankly, boys by and large aren’t interested and it is hard to motivate them when in fact much of what they are “studying” is useless. Boys like a sense of achievement, they like to make things, they like to have a clear end product – what goes on in school appears vague, distant and unappealing. On top of it all, modern norms in health and safety and such like have knocked boys’ innate sense of adventure out of them. Then we wonder why so many of them fail to make it to school at all! I have mentioned before that one school in Holywood wanted to put a mechanic’s in its new-build – a brilliant and practical idea, inevitably rejected by the bureaucrats.
So it is that last month employment rose in Northern Ireland, unemployment (both the actual dole queue and the ILO figure) fell, and yet more males in fact became economically inactive with in fact 2,000 more ending up on the dole. It is a familiar tale.
There are such things in politics as “men’s issues” – prime among them the nature of social change removing traditionally male lines of employment, tied to an education system which is entirely unappealing to most boys. This is fundamental. Yet not a single party dare raise it…