Labour Market

Attitudes to work and labour market outcomes: empirical findings

The UK’s Welfare Reform Act 2012 allows Department of Work and Pensions ‘work coaches’ to compel unemployed Universal Credit claimants, under threat of a financial ‘sanction’, to apply for jobs chosen by the coaches. Heralding the Act, its architect Iain Duncan Smith, then Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, suggested that some unemployed benefit claimants were too selective in the jobs they were willing to apply for. Speaking on BBC Newsnight in 2010, Duncan Smith referred to a TV documentary in which some would not get “on a bus” to a nearby city to widen their job search. Yet mainstream social policy academics have insisted that the tougher policies are unnecessary because unemployed benefit claimants are strongly committed to employment (for example, Tracy Shildrick’s (2018) ‘Poverty Propaganda’ [Policy Press]).

Unemployed people’s level of employment commitment has been debated for decades, yet empirical studies have not previously related people’s attitudes to work to their chances of being unemployed for a substantial proportion of their lives. My new paper Attitudes to work and time spent unemployed across 30 years, published in Economic Affairs, does precisely that. It used 1958 and 1970 British birth cohort datasets, which both have samples of several thousand, to show that responses to work attitude questions rival established unemployment risk variables as predictors of the amount of time people spent unemployed between the ages of 16 and 46.

I have long argued that quantitative research on unemployed people’s attitudes to work should use questions that give respondents a straight choice between a baddish job and being unemployed. This is because virtually all protagonists in the debate know that nearly all unemployed people would accept a job of some kind; importantly, if job searchers are excessively choosy in relation to their employability, they risk longer spells unemployed.

The 1958 National Child Development study (NCDS58) and the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) have asked their respondents three agree/disagree survey items that offer a choice between a disliked/unattractive job and unemployment – so all three relate to ‘sanctionable’ behaviours under the 2012 Welfare Reform Act:


‘If I didn’t like a job I would pack it in, even if there was no other job to go to.’

(Pack It In)


‘Once you’ve got a job it’s important to hang on to it even if you don’t really like it.’

(Hang On)


‘Having almost any job is better than being unemployed.’

(Almost Any Job)


Respondents were asked these agree/disagree questions at age 30 and 42 in the BCS70, and age 33 and 42 in the NCDS58, and both studies gather month-by-month information on respondents’ ‘main activity’. In both the NCDS58 and BCS70, those who ‘agreed’ with the ‘Pack It In’ statement at age 30/33 were more than 5 times as likely as those who ‘disagreed’ to have been ‘unemployed and seeking work’ for at least 20% of their total time spent either unemployed or employed. Logistic regression predicted the likelihood of people with negative employment attitudes being unemployed for more than 2.5 years, more than 5 years, and more than 20 per cent of their total time spent either employed or unemployed across the 30 years. ‘Odds Ratios’ established how many times more likely someone with negative work attitudes is to have spent these amounts of time unemployed, controlling for other relevant variables. The ‘Pack It In’ attitude’s Odds Ratios, for various measures of time spent unemployed, were all around 3 for both the NCDS58 and BCS70 – and were generally higher than those of other established unemployment risk variables included in models (a highest qualification below ‘O’ Level / GCSE grades A to C, no dependent children, male, being mostly single, living outside southern England [excluding London], poor health, low class background, and only experiencing low class jobs). It is remarkable that the Odds Ratios for those with low/no educational qualifications (all around 2) were all lower than those for ‘agreeing’ with ‘Pack It In’, as educational attainment weighs heavily on employability.

Odds Ratios for disagreement with the ‘Almost Any Job’ statement were around 2 (NCDS58) and 3 (BCS70) when models included the same unemployment risk variables. However, disagreeing with the ‘Hang On’ item had, at most, a weak relationship with time spent unemployed in the NCDS58, although its BCS70 Odds Ratios were all around 2; the weaker results for ‘Hang On’ are perhaps due to it eliciting views about what people in general should do, not what they themselves prefer to do.

Overall, the findings may help justify the provisions of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 for compelling unemployed benefit claimants to apply for, and subsequently retain, jobs they would otherwise have ruled out.

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