Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

The Demographic Gap

With the increased emphasis on “Big Society” and the use of Charity, it is possibly worth pausing to consider where we are going to find the required army of volunteers and paid charity workers.  With the cuts being passed down (see No hope, not much faith, but more charity?), I cannot see the funds to enable charities to employ more people (at all levels).  Neither do I believe that the Government is so cynical that it believes all these volunteering jobs will be taken on by the newly unemployed – have you ever tried to explain to a Job Centre Minus advisor why you are not available for work or not searching for work full-time?

But I think the problem goes deeper in some parts of the country. Speaking very broadly;

  • the very well-off may give money to charity but are rarely closely involved in terms of substantial amounts of time (either as an employee or a volunteer),
  • many of the economically struggling (or even those who have got beyond the basic struggle, but still aspire for basic comfort) are unable to give time or money,
  • which leaves the recently labelled “struggling middle”.

If the voluntary sector is to go through the sort of change necessary to cope with the huge demand that will be placed on it, it needs to find more than just volunteers to man charity shops or dish out soup.  The larger charities also require significant organisational and compliance effort to ensure that they are both efficient and effective. The majority of these people tend to come from the so-called struggling middle.  However there are two problems to address:

  • The “struggling middle” has to accept that it is a lot better off than those really economically struggling and can make a bigger contribution. (There is a difference between struggling to pay the rent or the loan shark, and struggling to make enough to afford the second holiday or to shop at M&S instead of Aldi.)
  • In some parts of the country the demographic profile is such that there may not be enough people to take up the load.

Getting data about the latter point is difficult.  The National Statistics website has an item Socio-economic classification of working-age population, summer 2003: Regional Trends 38. Graphing this data shows the variations in this profile across the country.


Socio-Economic Profile 2003

Socio-economic classification of working-age population, summer 2003 from National Statistics, Regional Trends 38

(If someone knows of a similar analysis that covers all adults rather than just 18-65, please let me know.)

Some regions would seem to be better positioned to supply the required oomph to the charity sector than others.  If we make some (very) broad assumptions:

  • The first three categories (left-hand in the above graph) may give us a very rough proxy for the relative demand for services (it does however leave out the retired),
  • The last category (right-hand one in the above graph) may give us a rough proxy for those who will donate significant amounts of money,
  • The other categories (fourth to seventh) inclusive may give us a rough proxy for those who would give significant time and who would take up management roles in the charity sector.

This would tend to indicate that the South East (and to a slightly lesser extent London and the East) are best positioned to deal with this change, while the North East and Northern Ireland are least well positioned.

Vince Cable was also kind enough to suggest (on the Politics Show last Sunday – BBC1 24 October 2010) that the North East could rely on its “entrepreneurial spirit” to generate the growth to replace the lost public sector jobs.  Looking at the “smaller employers and own account workers” in the above chart would tend to indicate that of all the regions, such a claim is least true in the North East and Scotland. So I would suggest his words, were “just words” – and in-just ones at that.

The North East has always been “stuffed” in hard times.  We have slowly been de-industrialised.  Since the late 70s we have seen:

  • Iron and Steel (at Consett) disappear from County Durham (and now possibly from Redcar as well)
  • Shipbuilding disappear from the Tyne, the Wear, and the Tees (partly through a dirty European stitch-up which the then Conservative Government did nothing to prevent)
  • Coal Mining disappear (apart from some open-cast) leaving numerous “pit villages” without employment.
  • Numerous other closures which leave industries (e.g. Chemicals, Armaments, Electrical Engineering) as shadows of their former selves – remember ICI?

And successive government responses:

  • Promotion “call centres” as a solution to the loss of this skilled employment – but they can (and do) move to cheaper areas like India (where there are more better educated people willing to man the phones),
  • Move the clerical element of some Government departments to the North East – which they now cut, because the North East is “too dependent on the public sector” (this includes business support organisations),
  • “Regional policy” to supply grants that are heavily focused on “grant per blue-collar job”; while at first sight this would seem to be a sensible solution to the loss of skilled jobs, it does not build a secure and sustainable economy, because you get the “spanner works”, but not the support functions and headquarters which help industries to put down deep roots.  It is very easy to move a “spanner works” to the Far East or Eastern Europe, but it is far more difficult to close down a works that is closely integrated into your headquarters functions (design and development, purchasing, finance, etc.).  Remember NEI?

The impact of all the above is to possibly accelerate an already existing demographic deficit. In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, the North East was highly divided.  Rich Land Owners and impoverished agricultural workers, the Great Industrialists and their poorly paid workers. There was (compared to the south) a very small “middle class” – a few land agents and industrial overseers.

Possibly a region with a weak or missing “demographic middle” will always struggle – and consequently will always have to be subsidised by the South.  To call for an entrepreneurial spirit to provide growth – whilst cutting business support, and to expect the charity sector to provide a bigger safety net is totally unrealistic.


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