Mass unemployment has begun to appear in advanced democratic economies with startling rapidity in the last three months. Predictions about UK unemployment reaching 3 million are already vindicated and unemployment has shot up in the United States, Germany, Ireland and France, as well as in Eastern European countries. In Spain, unemployment could reach 20% this year from its present 14.4%.
Unemployment. Unemployment support systems are geared to addressing short-term unemployment problems. In practice two sorts of groups manifest at employment and job seeker centers, namely:
• those experiencing unemployment as they move into new positions but who are normally in work; and
• various categories of hardcore unemployed, including older males made redundant after several decades of working, the large groups on incapacity benefits, young school leavers and younger adults bereft of basic skills, and single mothers.
To meet the needs of these varied groups most governments have developed extensive training and work preparation systems. In the United Kingdom training schemes for the unemployed have expanded greatly since the last period of mass unemployment in the early 1980s. Both Conservative and Labour governments made the reduction of unemployment a priority and instituted numerous training program in which job seekers participate for work preparation.
Training types. In establishing extensive training programs, UK governments imitated established practice in such places as Sweden, Denmark and Germany where training for the unemployed has been a precept of state policy since the 1960s. However, there is a key difference between the types of training regimes established in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States, Australia and Ireland, compared with those in place in Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
In the latter coordinated market systems, training is an integral part of the labor market and a necessary condition for employment and job security. In contrast, training measures introduced in uncoordinated more neo-liberal influenced market economies are adjuncts rather than a pillar of labor market policy. It is a means of occupying the unemployed for short periods before ideally entering the labor market in low wage positions, though in practice many simply enter another short-term training scheme.
Political pressure. Neither model of training policy -- entrenched institutional deep training or short-term responses to unemployed needs -- is well placed to cope if unemployment surges. Carefully constructed national social pacts are highly vulnerable to this economic crisis. These are robust during normal counter-cyclical periods, but insufficiently robust during a period of mass unemployment:
• In France, street protests and strikes are routine.
• In Ireland 120,000 protesters took to the streets in the first of a series of protests on February 20.
• Protests have occurred in Latvia, Greece and Iceland, in the latter case forcing the sitting government out of office.
• In Greece, underlying hostility to the state especially among the young who suffer unemployment disproportionately bodes ill for social peace.
This political atmosphere is ripe for nationalist xenophobia and extremist political parties or movements. Recession damages cosmopolitanism, advantaging insularity and small mindedness. Anti-foreign sentiment emerges or recurs immediately with economic depression. The demographic structure of the new unemployed is also of concern. All classes of occupations are affected, from temporary blue-collar workers to highly qualified lawyers, bankers and other white-collar workers. As unemployment endures this commonality of experience across so many parts of the labour force will encourage common alliances structured around hostility to groups such as foreigners.