Are things really getting better? The labour market experience of black and female youth (1) at the start of the century.

Author:Cregan, Christina


The education and job chances of young people have been issues of crucial concern to successive British governments because, in the final decades of the last century, youth unemployment rates persisted at levels of over double that of the adult population and usually in the region of 20 per cent. The accompanying general increase in educational participation (2) was more pronounced for young blacks (Banks et al, 1992; Slade, 1992; Drew et al, 1992; Gray et al, 1994; Drew, 1995; Labour Market Trends, 1996) and young women (Gray and Sime, 1992; Gray et al, 1994; Labour Market Quarterly Report, May 1996) than their respective counterparts. By the start of the new century, the labour market position of these groups is thought to have improved substantially, in part because of this trend. There is some evidence, for example, that by the 1990s, some members of these groups had disproportionately benefited in terms of gaining educational qualifications and job opportunity (eg, Roberts 1995; Ainley, 1993; Tomlinson 1 997; McCrum, 1998). These conclusions have been generalised in the popular press. In particular, there is continuing public debate about the 'girls on top' phenomenon: for example, 'The Future is Female' (aac Panorama, 1994), 'Men aren't Working' (BBC Panorama, 1995), 'Grim Reading for Males' (Guardian, 1998a), 'Problems That Arise When Boys will be "Lads"' (Guardian, 1998b). Stephen Byers, then School Standards Minister in the Labour Government, lent political authority to current opinion when he argued that 'laddish' behaviour impeded boys' learning (Guardian, 1998b).

It is unsurprising, therefore, that while placing education as a 'key' priority, New Labour policy did not specifically target black and female youth. In a recent speech, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, argued that university researchers should 'make their findings more accessible to government officials to help them deliver more effective policies' (Guardian 2000). The aim of this article, therefore, is to clearly present evidence that is counter-intuitive in that it debunks current beliefs. Instead, it incontrovertibly demonstrates that popular 'truths' conceal and belie the experience of the majority of black and female youths because they are based on analyses of the academically most successful and/or socially most advantaged. This paper is concerned with the majority: those who do not proceed to university, most of whom are from low-socio-economic backgrounds. It will be demonstrated that, by the beginning of the new century, the positions of most young blacks and women relative to their respec tive white and male equivalents, had not changed to any significant extent compared to the pre-Thatcher years. Indeed, for some young blacks it had worsened. This situation has major policy implications in terms of future labour market and educational reforms for a Government whose programmes have embraced a desire to help the poor and less able.

The method of enquiry is an analysis of different kinds of evidence. There have been several major on-going studies of young people conducted in Britain over the last three decades or so, such as the England and Wales Youth Cohort Surveys and the Scottish Young People's Surveys. Pertinent results will be examined along with other important literature. The data is contextual, quantitative and qualitative. It includes case studies, econometric findings, official statistics and legislative details. The analysis will be categorised according to explanatory theme. The article will be organised in the following way. First, the arguments will be introduced. Second, empirical findings will be discussed: illustrating the educational and labour market patterns of these groups and then supporting the themes of the arguments. A tabular summary of some of the results will be presented for purposes of clarification. Finally conclusions and policy implications will be drawn.

Racial and gender groupings will be dealt with separately for clarity's sake, though black females, say, will be represented in both types (3). Typologies are a useful way to present themes but they are an over-simplification: some blacks gained skilled work (Booth and Satchell 1996) and many low-skill jobs were not gender-based (Marsden and Ryan 1986). Bearing in mind this caveat, in general, it will be assumed that blacks were represented mainly in low-skill jobs and that many occupations were segregated by sex.


The main argument is that policies of successive governments in the last thirty years of the twentieth century had no overall advantageous effect on the relative experiences of the majority of young blacks and females. The notion of labour market stratification, whereby the market does not clear, is essential to the explanatory analysis. Many studies of youth rest on the idea that the labour market is stratified (eg, Roberts et al. 1987) or segmented (eg, Marsden and Ryan 1986; Ashton and Maguire 1986; Ashton 1988; Marsden and Germe 1990). Essentially stratification involves the idea that freedom of entry/exit to some industries/occupations is restricted and thus rigidities arise in the labour market and may persist. It is engendered by such factors as attitudes, level and range of information and contacts, qualifications/training and laws/institutions. The concept is particularly important with regard to the young because, although the British youth labour market consists largely of unskilled work, it also o ffers some important entry ports to careers, particularly in terms of the apprenticeship system. For example, Ashton and Maguire (1986) maintained that those who had not obtained a formal training by the age of i8 were excluded from large parts of the labour market. Roberts et al (1987) argued that those who failed to gain admission to entry ports might 'find themselves permanently excluded from routes up the occupational structure, confined to unemployment or secondary occupations' (p.30).

The situation of blacks and women as distinct groups needs separate analyses with regard to stratification. With regard to ethnic minorities, although the post-war decades were a time of prosperity, blacks of both genders tended to be vertically stratified or 'crowded' into low-paying jobs which offered fewer training opportunities than those available to their white counterparts. It is contended that this situation was largely a feature of racial prejudice, poor information, inadequate qualifications and poverty that continued throughout the final three decades of the last century. Moreover, in the changed economic circumstances that have marked those three decades, individuals at the bottom of youth job queues faced more dire circumstances than in the prosperous post-war years. Finally, new educational programmes of successive governments have done little to counter and may even have exacerbated this situation: for example, the increase in poverty among black people meant a consequential confinement to run- down city areas and deprived schools where policies favoured 'successful' institutions.

The case of young females as a group needs a different approach. Girls are subject to horizontal stratification. In general, in the fifties and sixties they were represented in different types of industries/occupations than young men and, as a consequence, received less training overall and acquired skills which led to lower long-term financial rewards. It is contended that such stratification continued through the persistence of conventional attitudes to work and family. Moreover, in the changed labour market context of the last quarter century, young women were exposed to particular competition from increasing numbers of women returners, and to the development of 'dead-end' work and the implications of new technology in traditionally 'female' areas. Finally, educational developments in the form of new examinations in the commercial courses usually undertaken by girls were efficacious with regard to gaining work relative to subjects traditionally chosen by boys. This meant that young females were encouraged to stay within the confines of their own sector, sacrificing long-term prospects for immediate employment.

These explanations can be introduced within a theoretical framework in which labour is reproduced as cheaply as possible (Bordieu and Passeron 1977). More than this, labour is also adapted to the changed economy of the late twentieth century. Ainley (1993) contended that this process involved an 'ideological and material construction of the new "underclass"' (p. 66). From this stance, it is contended that the education system acts, not just as a sorting system (Willis 1977) but, particularly with regard to black male youths, as a mechanism to subdue and control those young people who are unable to obtain constant or worthwhile jobs (Roberts 1995). In the case of young women, Hartman (1976) argued that 'job segregation by sex ... is the primary mechanism in capitalist society that maintains the superiority of men over women, because it enforces lower wages' (p. 139), while Redclift (1985) maintained that 'the reproduction of capitalism is premised upon unpaid domestic labour'. It is contended that educational reform successfully accommodated these aims.

Empirical work

Young black people

  1. The phenomenon: increased educational participation but persisting disadvantage

    Since the main immigration flow to the UK of the fifties and sixties, labour market disadvantage was clearly apparent for the black population. When black early school-leavers gained work, it was generally of the low-level, unskilled variety which offered no training (Smith 1976; Mayhew and Rosewell 1978). Moreover, their unemployment rates were always higher than those of whites (Jones 1976) and by the late seventies, they were between two or three times those of whites (National Dwelling and Household Survey 1978). (4) Although there...

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