Simplistic ‘working for the dole’ approaches are unlikely to have significant impact and could cause damage, says Professor Max Abbott – Dean of AUT’s Faculty of Health and Environmental Sciences.
“It is good to see Government making unemployment reduction a priority, however to be effective, measures will need to be driven from the heart and informed by reality. Stereotypes and prejudice don’t help – people are unemployed for all sorts of reasons and these differences need to be taken into account,” he says.
Professor Abbott argues that most unemployed people want to work, and the main reason they are unemployed is because there are insufficient jobs to go around. In this sense, he believes they are doing employed people a huge favour – by not working, people who are out of work allow others to have a job.
“Tragically, many unemployed people suffer as a consequence. Research shows they are at high risk for mental and physical health problems,” says Abbott, Professor of Psychology & Public Health and past president of the World Federation for Mental Health.
New Zealand once had virtually no unemployment. So much so that Professor Abbott notes a former Prime Minister once allegedly responded, when asked how many people were unemployed, “do you want me to name them?”
“There is an old saying that being unemployed is the hardest job of all. It is. Apart from wages, having a job provides many other things that are usually taken for granted, like structure in the waking day, social status, meaning, companionship and connection to wider society,” he says.
“When you have never had a job, or you lose one, these things are not there. People are typically vulnerable and face a huge challenge to find and build alternatives for themselves. Often alternatives include providing unpaid work caring for family and whanau, and contributing to the wider community.”
He adds that most unemployed people want a job and will take up successful employment when work is available. Others, especially among the long-term unemployed, have become demoralised and lost confidence. “There are also people from backgrounds of intergenerational unemployment who may lack the attitudes and skills required for full-time employment,” says Professor Abbott. “Many have mental health and drug issues, while others have become involved in gangs and criminal activities that partially substitute for not having a job.”
Professor Abbott says that reducing unemployment requires both the development of more jobs, and the implementation of programmes that are tailored to the varied situations and circumstances of individuals. “These need to go hand in hand.”