Professor Blackburn, throughout your work, you have suggested the relevance of inequality as a social mechanism that reproduces itself from one generation to another. This aspect of inequality marks a difference with the current discourse on precarity, that is now become a very serious issue in Europe. The fight against precarity, in fact, seems, for the younger generation, something new and different, because it is felt by the young people excluded from the labour market as something unique and peculiar to their particular condition linked to the crises. In your opinion, to what extent precarity is really an unprecedented condition?
I don’t see why it should be an unprecedented condition. I think each generation that comes along finds different conditions from those of of other generations. Society is constantly changing and so situations that people face are radically different. The present situation, then, is different from the past but in general terms not particularly new. Nonetheless I don’t think there was the same sense of insecurity when I started my career. When I was unemployed, I didn’t think about a short contract and I didn’t think that I wouldn’t get a job. I actually took the chance of buying a house and didn’t worry about it, because my income was sort of sufficient. Looking back at it, I don’t think somebody in the same situation would be able to take it these days. Until the 1960’s and 70’s people were more optimistic, more hopeful. Now there are policies that generate insecurity, so precarity is an important subjective experience but it is based on changes in social reality.
On certain issues, graduates in precarious situations are often struggling together with other disadvantaged categories like migrants, like for example for social housing, and this happens in particular in urban environments, like London. Do you think the distribution of property is an issue in Britain, now?
Yes, it always has been. At one extreme you’ve got people living in huge mansions, only a few people but owning accommodation that many people could live in, with enormous tracts of land attached to them. On the other extreme you’ve got waiting lists for housing, you’ve got people without home, people living in overcrowded conditions, and people living in houses that are sub-standard. For as long as I could remember there has been a waiting list for people to get a council house that used to be publicly financed housing – which they can afford, whereas the expensive housing on the market are so expensive that there are many people that can’t afford that sort of housing. This is a significant element of inequality that has existed for many years, and it is probably greater now than it was when I was young, when there was a serious attempt to ameliorate the situation, like after the second world war.
At that time the struggle against this component of inequality was more successful?
At that time there was a more egalitarian society, there was more concern to be fair, that everybody as far as possible had what was needed. There were problems about that, but there was a general acceptance that there should be a serious effort to provide adequate housing. That wasn’t completely succeeding but at least the effort was there.
The coalition government in Britain says that new restrictions are needed to avoid immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria accessing the benefits of the British welfare state too easily. How can we keep a social model that is, on the contrary, inclusive?
The simple answer would be: “I don’t know!” There is a key problem, which is that we have been just discussing the shortage of housing, but there is actually also a shortage of jobs for less skilled people and in fact at present time probably for everybody, so although the attraction of coming to Britain may exist for people from some countries, it’s not really a terribly good time for moving there. If you take a large scale view at present time we really don’t need lots of immigrants, whereas, say, in 1950’s we were actually welcoming immigrants because we were short of workers so it’s a good thing and it can be beneficial to have an open society policy, which is obviously a much more humane way of approaching things, but it also can create genuine problems. Apart from the fact that we now have many illegal immigrants into the country, which obviously heightens the problems, there is no simple solution except creating a fairer world all around.
In your work you stressed the importance of a shared experience between manual workers and white-collar workers as a way to overcome their relative differences and to find a common ground for their social identity. Many people think that part of the so-called “lost generation”, which is often both educated and disillusioned, is too self-indulgent and should look at the wider picture of social inequality which goes beyond them. Do you think there is enough attention on the importance of these shared experiences between manual and non manual workers in the post-industrial economy?
No, there isn’t. The shared experience is something that is differentiated, even if there are some elements that are common. In unequal societies like ours the experiences are going to be different, but what is largely not sufficiently appreciated is that athough the experience might be different, the majority of population has more in common and are excluded from the advantages and benefits that are accrued just to minorities. At present times all types of workers are suffering from cutbacks, shortage of jobs, decline of the living standards, except the two percent of them, who are getting richer, maximising their own position at the expense of the rest of the population, which means that the rest of the population do have common interests which are not being addressed and probably are not sufficiently recognised and shared.
Bob Blackburn is Emeritus Reader in Sociology and Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University. He was the original Director of the Social Science Research Group and now serves as Treasurer. He is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences, and serves on the Academy Council. He has served on the Executive Committee of the British Sociological Association, and on the Editorial Board of Work, Employment and Society. He graduated in maths and philosophy at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and received a PhD in social science at Liverpool University.. At Liverpool he taught sociology, research methods and social philosophy before moving to Cambridge as Head of Sociological Research in the Department of Applied Economics and subsequently joining the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences (now PPSIS). He was Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Alberta, and taught a graduate course on the work of his research group at Getulio Vargas, Sao Paolo. He has written extensively on social inequality, particularly social stratification, gender and ethnicity, and on work.