Tackling loneliness: a role for policy?

I’ve long seen loneliness as a neglected dimension in the social capital debate.A furry of recent media reports about loneliness and the young, as well as loneliness and the elderly, has made me revisit this issue

At its simplest, the example of loneliness and its damaging effects always seems to me a good reason for ignoring those who say social capital is not worth researching. If loneliness can be so harmful, it follows that decent social connections are a positive resource, at least potentially. So I’ve often wondered why social capital researchers don’t at present have much to say on the topic.

I tried to remedy this in a little way in my social capital textbook. The final chapter considers policy interventions in the area of social capital, and in the third edition I introduced a few ideas about tackling loneliness. Like any intervention in social capital, there are risks and problems, but not acting to prevent loneliness is also an intervention – and one with damaging consequences.

My own view is that thinking of loneliness in the context of social capital is helpful, but you can make up your own mind about that.


From Social Capital (p 84)

It’s worth adding that fostering public debate over loneliness in itself makes a valuable contribution. I’ve been impressed by the Yorkshire Post‘s long-running campaign over loneliness, for example. Simply hiding the problem is, it seems to me, a recipe for making things much worse.

Kids today: young people and the labour market (with PS)

One car trader claims that over 80% of applicants for apprenticeships are unsuitable for any employment. A major survey of nearly 88,000 businesses finds that about two-thirds of employers who recruit school-leavers report that most are well-prepared for work. Both reports appeared on the same day. Guess which hit the headlines?

Car sales and servicing company Arnold Clark was widely reported for saying that young people had wholly unrealistic expectations of work. The claims, which came in a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Finance Committee, were prominently reported in the Telegraph, while the Scotsman added a leader comment and front page report.

Such claims are, of course, familiar. In this case, they commanded attention for three main reasons. First, Arnold Clark is a respected firm, which is known widely to invest in training. Second, the claims were precise and factual, referring to the 81% of young people whose applications for apprenticeship places were rejected. Third, the company attacked colleges, describing them as babysitting youngsters, which gave journalists an obvious hook for their reports.

Let me start by saying that Arnold Clark strike me as a decent company by UK business standards. Okay, perhaps not the highest bar of moral probity, but I’d buy – have bought – a used car from them. The firm take apprentices, both in its core trading arm, and in its wholly owned training subsidiary. The parent company employs its apprentices, a tenth of whom are recruited from seriously disadvantaged youngsters, with support from the Prince’s Trust.

While I would love to know what proportion of turnover is spent on training by the company, this is not a whinging Dickensian boss who hates spending money on training new staff. Nevertheless, the story merits a closer look.

First, the submission to MSPs came not from Arnold Clark, but from its wholly-owned subsidiary, GTG Training. As well as internal staff training, GTG sells business training and support services externally, and this includes a large programme of modern apprenticeships. It is therefore a direct competitor of the college sector – something the press ignored.  

Second, GTG’s figures covered solely those who applied for apprenticeships with Arnold Clark, not other areas. The submission accepts that this is a biased sample, suggesting that we may well be recruiting at the lower end of the achievement spectrum. So we cannot treat this as representative of all young people – yet the press did just that.

Third, GTG’s criticism of colleges turns mainly on the question of study hours. The submission claims that college students typically study at most for 18 hours a week, with few or no extra-curricular activities. The result, according to the evidence submitted to MSPs, is that those who go to college re-emerge into the economy . . . with a further deterioration in concept of working week.

This sounds pretty crude logic. In my experience, youngsters realise that school or college are not work, nor are they meant to be. But it is true that most full-time national qualifications require around 20 hours attendance, while higher nationals require 15 hours. On top of that, students undertake self-directed study and assignments (also known as homework). Many also have a part-time job, to help fund their study.

Fourth, most of the young people’s supposed weaknesses don’t sound like the result of education. Rather, they are attitudinal or personal. The submission lists eight recurring themes, only two of which – communication skills and understanding of citizenship – sound like responsibilities of the education system. The others, such as inability to make a decision based on anything other than I want, seem to me typical of a more general consumerist view, which is pretty pervasive, and no doubt helps sell cars.

Fifth, the evidence of these weaknesses comes from round table discussions with recruiters. Really? Well, I have just had a round table discussion with a youth worker from Fife, who tells me that most of the disadvantage youngsters he works with would love a steady job, and indeed many jump when offered the chance. Yes, they need training, but who doesn’t?

MSPs might pose a few sharp questions when they meet GTG. They could do worse than look at the latest employer skills survey from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills. There is a neat chart on page 30, showing that 68% of Scottish employers who hired school-leavers reported that they were either well-prepared or very well-prepared for work, while 82% of those who recruited Scottish college-leavers took the same view.

UKCES also reported on employers’ criticisms of young people. In Scotland, the most frequent complaint was over lack of work experience among school-leavers, and lack of specific skills or competences among college recruits. Attitude and personality (including punctuality) were the second most frequent complaint of school-leavers, but few employers thought these a problem for college recruits.

Comparing across the home nations, Scottish employers were more likely to think young people well-prepared for work. But the responses were broadly similar across the UK, with most employers taking a pretty positive view. In fact, employers appear so satisfied that you’re more likely to be knocked over by a spaceship than seeing this part of the story making media headlines.

Either Arnold Clark is in a tiny minority of employers who are flummoxed by the challenges of today’s teenagers, or GTG Training is using the submission to have a go at its competitors in the college sector. This fits a particular press narrative, in which young people are invariably stigmatised, their skills derided and their personalities lampooned.


Postscript, added 24 May

David Scott, head of the firm that made this critical submission to the Scottish Parliament, failed to attend the committee meeting on 23 May to discuss his paper. According to the BBC, Mr Scott claimed that he had an unforeseen business engagement. Needless to say, politicians of all parties were unamused – or more accurately, amused themselves at Mr Scott’s expense. The BBC report is at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-18180095

Results of the 2011 UKCES employer skill survey are available at: http://www.ukces.org.uk/assets/ukces/docs/publications/ukces-employer-skills-survey-11.pdf