The power of stupid ideas: ‘three generations that have never worked’

This month I ran a workshop with a group of first year undergraduate sociology students at Teesside University (in the North East of England). Our students tend to be from working-class or lower-middle class backgrounds and often the first in their families to go to university. I’d been invited to give an insight into a ‘real life’ research project, and I began by asking for responses and thoughts about some quotations:

‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job’ (ex-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, 1997).

‘…on some deprived estates…often three generations of the same family have never worked’ (Iain Duncan Smith, 2009; now British government Minister for Work and Pensions).

‘To reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations’ (Universal Credit, Department of Work and Pensions, 2010; this is a document that introduces a very major overhaul of UK welfare payments).

‘…there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’ (Chris Grayling, ex-Minister for Work and Pensions, 2011).

The idea that there are families in the UK with three (or four, or five and even six have been claimed) generations where no one has ever had a job is a particularly powerful orthodoxy. It is often repeated, rarely questioned, becoming part of a taken for granted vernacular. I was struck by the students’ comments. One said, ‘well, it must be true if all these [people] are saying it’. Another felt the same because ‘they wouldn’t say it unless there was loads of data to back it up’. Simple ideas boldly spoken (and repeated) by people in authority can carry real weight.

But is this idea true?

One of the most avid propagators of this claim is Iain Duncan Smith, Minister of State for Work and Pensions. Although students imagined that ‘there must be loads of data to back it up’, his response to a Freedom of Information Request enquiring about the evidence for his (and others’) assertions about this was that ‘statistical information on the number of UK families that never work is not available.’ Rather, he explained, his views were based on ‘personal observations’.

But my colleagues and I are social scientists, so instead of relying on ‘personal observations’, Tracy Shildrick, Andy Furlong, Johann Roden, Rob Crow, and I began rigorous research to see if there really were families like this. We have continued thinking, analysing, writing about, and presenting the complexities of the research material that we gathered since then. The research generated other questions, but, unusually for a sociological study, we found a clear and unequivocal answer to this first question: the existence of families where ‘no one had worked for three generations’ is highly unlikely.

We searched very hard to find such families. We chose two extremely deprived working-class neighbourhoods – in Glasgow and Middlesbrough, because we assumed that they were the sorts of places most likely to reveal this phenomenon. Despite deploying all the strategies and tactics we could think of (including financial inducements), we were unable to find any. This does not mean that they do not exist. Some people believe in fairies or Yetis, and one cannot prove they do not exist. We can say, however, that it is highly improbable that they do. Or, if they do, their numbers are infinitesimally small. Other research drew upon the best available secondary statistics and concluded that less than half of one per cent of all workless households in the UK might have two generations where no one had ever had a job. Households with three generations that have never worked are, logically, going to be far, far fewer in number than even this tiny fraction.

This was, actually, a quite predictable conclusion. A little socio-economic history helps. How long is ‘three generations’? Maybe sixty years, so back to the 1950s, or earlier. The proposition is that there are families where no one has had a job since the 1950s. The UK welfare state has become tougher and tougher over this period, particularly in the last few years. We have very tight ‘conditionality rules’ and ‘activation tests’; recipients of unemployment benefits must provide evidence of their worthiness for these on a weekly basis. It is difficult to imagine a person being able to defraud the state for the whole of his/ her working life – and then his/ her son or daughter doing the same and then his/ her son or daughter after them, for sixty years.

We also need to think about what has happened in working-class communities over this period. Certainly the neighbourhoods we studied were impoverished and had high unemployment rates, but they have not always been so. In the 1960s, Middlesbrough was a very successful, prosperous local economy with full employment. During the 19th and 20th centuries it became world famous for its prowess in industrial production (being the source of the Sydney Harbour and Golden Gate Bridges, and the Indian Railway network). Glasgow’s importance was so profound that it became known as ‘the second city of the British Empire’. Middlesbrough had ‘full employment’ in the 1950s and ‘60s; jobs (for working-class men, at least) were in good supply during the exact periods in which this plague of intergenerational worklessness was said to be taking grip. If we are to properly understand the stories of these families and how they became distanced from the labour market, we need to locate family biographies in place and history and, following CW Mills, to trace the connections between ‘private troubles of individual milieu’ and ‘public issues of social structure’. These localities have experienced radical disinvestment and the wrecking of their economic bases. To use Alice Mah’s phrase, they have undergone ‘ruination’, with Middlesbrough now having the reputation of ‘the most deindustrialised locale in the UK’. In hearing the stories of these families we were not hearing tales of ‘welfare dependency’ stretching across the generations but about how, through massive deindustrialisation, many of the working-class families that live in these places have been stripped of the possibility of making a decent life through decent employment.

Debunking welfare myths is an important job for social scientists but so is trying to understand what purpose these myths serve – and why they retain their power. By the end of the workshop, students were getting quite angry and raising questions about the power of the myth: ‘so how can they say this? It’s ridiculous. It’s just daft!’. They were able to understand these simple messages about deindustrialisation and the wrecking of regions, so why can’t clever and powerful people – the Prime Ministers and Ministers of State in the UK (from different political parties) that continue to espouse stupid ideas?

I think there are lots of answers to such questions. One is that myths about a lazy, work-shy underclass serve a clear ideological function: they help ‘sell’ the sweeping cuts to social security spending that have been enacted by the UK government under their austerity programme. Social security budgets have received some of the deepest cuts – and these have tended to be viewed very favourably by the general public, working-class and unemployed people included. Conditions of widespread employment insecurity and falling wages breed mistrust, fear, and anger. ‘Others’ are blamed. These are fertile conditions for stupid ideas about ‘shirkers’ who see ‘unemployment as a life-style choice’ and who ‘sleep their days away on benefits’ in families where ‘no-one has worked for three generations’ (all terms used by government ministers). In other words, we are witnessing the resurrection of the age-old phantom of the ‘undeserving poor’, trotted out to ease the way for further welfare cuts that, in fact, hurt some of the already most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society.

Robert MacDonald

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Sociology at Teesside University, UK. He has researched and written widely about social exclusion, work and youth.


This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to The power of stupid ideas: ‘three generations that have never worked’

  1. Pingback: The Benefits Bonanza, 1971-2015 - Scottish Home Education Forum

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  4. Simon Webb says:

    I suppose that this depends entirely upon what you understand by the expression, ‘never worked’. I can certainly put anybody in touch with a number of families where there are three generations who have ‘never worked’. Consider the case of one of these. A girl of eighteen had a baby while she was at an FE college. She has certainly never worked, having subsequently had a string of other babies. Her oldest daughter became pregnant herself, shortly after leaving school. She had the baby at the age of seventeen. Here are three generations of a family who have never worked. Granted, the youngest of these is only a few months old, but this is still literally true.


    • “She has certainly never worked, having subsequently had a string of other babies.”

      You just undercut your argument: how can a person have a string of other babies without an income? Oh, wait — you did not state if this unnamed “she” ever got married to someone with gainful employment. In such a case, it may well be that this “workless” woman never held a job, and that her eldest daughter, a teen, who is now also pregnant is also without employment, as is her newborn (wtf!). Hence, your “three generations of worklessness”. And this assumes that raising children is not to be considered a species of “work”, and that what does is that brand of labor that is compensated by (probably tiny) paycheck.

      Are you advocating reinstituting child labor — that is, putting children to work BEFORE they reach the age of biological sexual maturity — so that the image of intergenerational “worklessness” is broken? And please remind me: for what reason is this a concern?

      Look, let me say what others here are too polite to say. Your example is a fiction, and such a deeply embedded one in Anglo culture that we in the colonies are burdened by it as well. Given the long lives of racism and misogyny I have my doubts that this burden will be lifted anytime soon, and that we can therefore look forward to more anti-poor, anti-woman, and frankly (at least in the U.S.) anti-Black policies that will continue to immiserate the lives of society’s most vulnerable populations. Because, spake Charles Murray, making the lives of the defenseless worse will make them better people.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jack Labusch says:

      Simon, Donald–Prof. MacDonald didn’t find ’em, the multi-gen slackers. I think that’s the point of the post. Say you discover a public statement is likely baseless, or a constellation of statements is baseless, or a constellation of long-standing policy preferences is founded on widely accepted misstatements or falsehoods—then whaddya do?


      • That is exactly MY point, my literary capacity for droll sarcasm notwithstanding. But you pose an excellent question. Indeed, whaddya do in the face of this?

        The question is faced by a problem of historical priority: “the so-called needy are just a bunch of slackers and if we give help in any way, they will abandon the morally uplifting toil of honest work for the drowsy hammock of the public handout” is an idea that goes back centuries beyond the rise of the welfare state of the twentieth century. Frankly, I don’t think a stupid idea with that kind of resilience can be beaten with the good ideas that come from superior and unbiased research methods. The only way to defeat it, I think, is by a rather forceful power shift in current social relations such that a stupid idea like that can never again gain traction and embed itself into public conscience without first being laughed off the planet. Longstanding social inequality, continuing into the more recent advent of industrial capitalism, and old but protean rightist ideology (with its concomitant social bigotries, held even by people who regard themselves as tolerant of difference and as sympathetic to the plight of the downtrodden — held, even, by some of its very victims) have given a bad idea a long good head start. The social research that can expose its untruth is not located in precincts that reproduce power for the weak against the strong, for there is no such power to reproduce. Therefore, the weak themselves will have find a way to raise the price that attaches to abusing them.

        Stupid ideas, in other words, must finally come at a truly severe cost.

        At present, they do not.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Jack Labusch says:

    It’s hard not to admire the political artfulness of the “never-workers” assertions.

    You hold, say, a master’s in chemistry, you’re slogging away at a minimum-wage retail job with no prospects, and, you’re earning much less, inflation-adjusted, than your grandfather a half-century ago. Along comes Politician X, who rips into and demonizes a sub-population of putative multi-generational slackers, whose actual numbers, as Prof. MacDonald suggests, may be brain-achingly small. By God, you’re not like those system-gaming, slack-jawed layabouts, no sirree, you’re better than that. You’re made to feel better, without having actual been made better.

    I’m caricaturing, but I think America’s Republicans (nominally conservative and market-oriented) have been fairly successful at distracting people with “red-meat” assertions and arguments of questionable merit, so that voters will less likely notice their decline in living standards and citizen-sovereignty.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. TMoney says:

    Your search started in the wrong location. Try the House of Lords, I’m sure that more of the super wealthy / aristocracy have not had paid work in 3 generations. They may have had income from estates, but paid work ?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nick Marsh says:

    the only families where this is true are the obscenely asset rich. Best example is the royal family.


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  9. William Forrest says:

    During the late Eighties I ran a Project out of the Open University to help the long term unemployed who were prolific at that time. It was and I still believe is the largest single project run by the Open University. Yes parts of England were badly hit but I never found a third generation of unemployed in the mainland. Where that unfortunate event happened was in Northern Ireland and third generation unemployment was prolific and is most certainly where the story originated and most probably from my reports to the then Northern Ireland Governenment. Take it from me it did exist, it was prolific and I personally vouch for that having worked with and among many, possibly hundreds, of third generation unemployed families and, hopefully, improved their lot.

    I am now too old to retain records but they will be available at the Open University, Department of Community Education and at the Government of Northern Ireland, departments of Education and Home Affairs. In passing it does strike me that you have gone a strange way to try to prove a point and released the results haphazardly and just look at the results above!

    William James Stuart Forrest (ex Open University).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well done and keep up this vital work
    This newly re-elected bunch of Tories will be trying to peddle their lies BIG-TIME over the next few years to bully working class people and bamboozle the rest..

    You would be more than welcome to come down to our Faculty of Education at Manchester Met to develop these ideas with our students.



  11. Frank Burns says:

    I had never believed this myth…ever. It is a typical lie put around long enough in the hope that it will be considered true.It is lies like this that has resulted in the return of a fully-fledged Conservative government. I feel sorry for Nick Clegg.A decent man who tempered the lunacy of the Coalition with sensible comments/ideas/policy. Surely I’m not the only one who became tired of the moaning from people when the Liberal Democrats had to drop their promise of ‘Tuition Fees.?’ Just wait ’till the Tories wheel out their welfare changes. Tuition fees will be the LEAST of our worries.The Tories must be shaking their heads in dis-belief at the result. In short…the electorate actually VOTED for austerity!! They must love the pain of it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Jonathan Carmichael says:

    Rob, I too don’t believe the myth.
    But I’m puzzled by how you got to your assertion that “three generations” goes back to the 1950s, which is the basis for your arguments about Middlesborough and Glasgow being prosperous in he 50s and 60s.
    To qualify fo the politicians’ claim, I think it would be reasonable to take a modern 18-year old who has never worked since leaving school at 16, whose parent and grandparent had never worked. Suppose the modern 18 year old is a child of another 18 year old, who was the child of another 18 year old, who left school at 16. This would give us 18 + 18 +2 = 38 years. That takes us back to 1977. not the 1950s.
    I don’t think anyone espousing the “three generations” myth is really suggesting that the latest generation has not worked for all of their life, just that they have never worked.
    I’d be interested to understand your reasoning please?


  13. Bernadette H says:

    Excellent piece of research. My first reaction to ‘The Myth’ was, the amount of times I have heard, people tell me ‘You could walk out of one job in the morning and be in another one in the afternoon’. Clearly, people talking about the sixties. Once again, a great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Tom McLaughlin says:

    Great article , can someone please tell me what the positive side of
    Deindustrialisation is.I have been flummoxed about this for years,
    even before the Thatcher , McGregor massacre of our industries.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. elizabeth says:

    Is it likely that there is deep rooted misogyny here? Three generations of women may have looked after their children – if its not paid, its not work!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. It wouldn’t be so bad if it was only students, (Thatcher’s grandchildren?), and stupid politicians coming out with this sort of rubbish, but in a recent politics programme on BBC Cymru Wales before the election someone with a doctoral degree came out with the self-same baloney.

    The programme itself was commenting on an hour long programme made by Michael Sheen following in the footsteps of the Chartist forces as they marched on Newport in 1839. The purpose of the programme was to try and motivate people to vote, and it was a surprisingly good programme.

    The following programme commenting on it was possibly one of the worst programmes I have ever seen. Apart from the apparently vacuous doctor, (I couldn’t help wondering if her doctoral thesis really was in rolling down grass banks) there was another young commentator who’s only positive contribution was to suggest that voting be compulsory – an horrific idea, if ever there was one. Voting, like education, should be voluntary.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Jo Jones says:

    Without seeking to dispute the findings of your scientific study, nor to substantiate the 3-generation rule in its truest sense, nor to make insulting or baseless suggestions about a particular area, I should be very interested to know what the stats are for Millbrook in Southampton. Here I understand that primary school children do not seek to be ‘air hostesses’ or whatever is the fashionable aspiration of the era ‘when they grow up’.. Instead I understand the response might frequently be along the lines of on the dole like my [parent], or so it allegedly was the case a handful of years ago: I base my assertions purely on personal observations and informal discussions with those serving said local community.

    My point is that however many generations have or have not worked and for however long over their lifetime, it does not feel right that children should give this form of response and whether this comes of having unemployed role models, outdated social housing strategy or whatever else, i think that it is this which needs attention and which might well form the basis of others’ “personal observations”. Future/existing research in this area might completely insubstantiate my suggestions, but whilst we are waiting for another £100k of research funding to be found, let’s try to find constructive solutions in the here and now to that which is observed however informally here and now? Before another generation grows up and the “damage” is done?


  18. Robert MacDonald says:

    Not sure that I completely understand your question – but well, I enjoy naps too! In the UK at least far too much moral/ political emphasis is put upon ‘hard work’. The families we talked to did a lot of work (caring, domestic labour, voluntary work, bits of low-level criminal work for some), even if paid employment was not so common.


  19. Michelle says:

    Good article.
    I am one of those who have lost their DLA and refused PIP. I have no motability vehicle now and my care element also gone.
    I am unable to use public transport, so I have to attend Dr appointments and the post box etc by taxi. I am looking for work i can do at home and I’ve considered going self employed but that would still require me going out to market and network face-to-face not all business is possible by phone and internet alone, pls I need a guaranteed income if I have to give up all my benefit. What is happening is apalling. I have worked all my life, 38 years, I claimed benefits between jobs for periods no longer than 3/4 months, so that my rent would be paid for the interim I did that approx 5/6 times. I won’t get my penson now until I’m 66 years old and I feel like I’ve been a slave, allowed enough to survive so that I can get to work. The HUman Rights Act is being removed to ensure we ahve no recourse to a greater court and outside of the UK. My taxi drivers, voted Tory because they hate the immigrants, they themselves entering the UK as immigrants/refugees. What’s going on? Where is the integrity? Where has Great Britain gone???

    Liked by 3 people

    • Robert MacDonald says:

      Hi Michelle
      I’m touched that you read and like the article. Your short comment should be shared very widely. Often times I am ashamed of what my country is doing, has become.
      Rob MacDonald

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Please send your research team here to the States. Stupid Ideas have become a badge of pride here, and not just those about global climate change.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Jessica says:

    You’re assuming that he meant full or adult generations. All he’d need is a family with three generations (eg, two generations of single teenage mothers and one newborn child) where the the mother and grandmother haven’t worked and he’d be able to argue he was technically correct.

    It’s very shady, and definitely twisting the English language to distort the facts to meet his political ideology, but do we expect anything else from politicans?

    Liked by 2 people

  22. Ver Greeneyes says:

    I’ll be honest, when I saw this post I thought you were talking about aristocrats or children of wealthy VIPs never having to work 😛

    Liked by 2 people

    • Pete B says:

      I’ve made similar points before, and people just treat it as a joke – but it isn’t. I’d guess there must be a number of families of landed gentry who’s offspring don’t contribute to society in the form of paid employment. Having a couple of examples ‘out there’ as starters might stimulate further research by the DWP and help move the wider debate along. (More likely hurried goalpost-shifting, but even so …)

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Jack Labusch says:

    “But is this idea true?” Thanks Prof. MacDonald. My guess is that in the States many constituents are so accustomed to therapeutic or somniferous political rhetoric that the idea of judging a political statement for its truth or untruth wouldn’t occur to them.

    Prof. MacDonald, can you give readers an idea of how much your research cost in man-hours or pounds? The reason I ask is I’ve done small-time opinion writing. It’s sometimes assumed (I think) I started with the thoughts as published, and simply squeezed the words out as if from a toothpaste tube. Mostly I started thinking much the opposite, and had to work at an opinion that seemed supported by evidence and reasonable judgment.

    You and your team seem to have tried to give the “never-workers” a fair shake. It may be worthwhile for readers to know how much a fair shake cost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert MacDonald says:

      Ha! that’s an interesting question.
      Yes, that’s exactly what we did. We tried our utmost ‘to find the Yeti’. We looked in all the right places, for quite a long time, using all the best techniques and lures. We couldn’t find any. That doesn’t mean the Yeti doesn’t exist – we can’t prove that. But, we’ve shown, that that is very, very unlikely. This project cost about £100k (main cost was employing two research assistants). That might sound a lot, but it really isn’t, compared with the £multi-millions wasted on attempting to tackle mythical ‘cultures of worklessness’.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jack Labusch says:

        Prof. MacDonald, thanks. (I used to sell advertising, BTW.)

        I don’t regret my citizen activism. I learned a lot, and have a fat manuscript to show for it. Still, wouldn’t do it again.
        You run into massive, even aggressive individual and institutional indifference. “So what”, “Who cares”, “I’ve got mine” seem to be the refrain. So you end up arguing by consequences, bootstrapping your observations and arguments with gimmickry, until you’re just pooped out.

        Liked by 1 person

  24. farah3 says:

    I think it was a slippage of terms. I worked at Teesside in the early 1990s. There were indeed three generations of families where the men had no jobs *at that time*. That’s why the women were in uni. But no one then was saying “had never had”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Robert MacDonald says:

      You’re right. Precision with language is very important here. Of course there are families that have *experienced* unemployment in different generations – because of the effects of de-industrialisation (in places like Teesside). That is quite different to saying that there are families where no-one has ever worked (for 3, 4, 5 generations). The latter requires, amongst other things, a very perverse culture of worklessness/ poverty to have been in place for decade after decade. That’s nonsense.

      Liked by 1 person

  25. sparagmite says:

    Class War on the Poor! How goes employment amongst the millionaires? Are they as busy as little bees? Are they productive? Do they add value?

    Liked by 1 person

  26. fatherkane says:

    Reblogged this on The Last Of The Millenniums and commented:
    Excellent article!


  27. edzillion says:

    Excellent debunking of the ‘three generations on welfare’ myth; I am going to post this in response to that meme every time I hear it.

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Will Shetterly says:

    I shared this at reddit, where starbreakerauthor left a comment I like: “Maybe they should try looking at the upper classes instead of the lower. The word for three generations who have never worked is aristocracy.”

    Liked by 2 people

  29. Your last paragraph really sums up my curiosity, as I guess, i’d ask, what DID they do then, for all that time? Three generations of tv watchers or three generations off the “job” grid (that which is recognized by the corporate focused governments), because of either exclusion from the grid or an abandonment of slavery to the grid?

    I do enjoy my naps, yet i do not create anything the world seems to want, and i’m so far from returning to the slavery system most seem to worship.


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