Unskilled, unmarried, unwanted …

Margaret Wente | Columnist profile | E-mail
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Britain’s riots may have captured all the media attention. But it is not the only place where violent flash mobs have been on the rampage. In Philadelphia, the U.S.’s fifth-largest city, roving gangs of black teenagers have taken to beating up ordinary citizens on the streets. To stem the wave of terror, the mayor, Michael Nutter, has imposed curfews and authorized harsher police measures.

The mayor, who is black, sounded a lot like Prime Minister David Cameron. He too vowed zero tolerance toward youthful thugs, and blamed the mayhem on widespread moral collapse. “This nonsense must stop. It must stop. If you want to act like a butthead, your butt is going to get locked up.” He didn’t spare the parents either. “You need to get hold of your kids before we have to,” he roared. Fathers need to be more than just a “sperm donor” or a “human ATM.”

Family breakdown. Failed communities. Aimless, unschooled youths who loot, riot, rob, and beat people up just for fun. The problems of Britain’s inner cities look amazingly like the problems of America’s inner cities. In both places, the disintegration of the family is intimately linked with social decay. In the U.S., two-thirds of black kids are born to single mothers and unmarried couples. In parts of Britain the rate is already that high. Nationally 46 per cent of children are born to unmarried mothers, according to Britain’s Centre for Social Justice. “The peculiarly high levels of family breakdown found in Britain are at the heart of the social breakdown which is devastating our most deprived communities,” says Gavin Poole, executive director of the CSJ.

The decline of marriage has gone hand in hand with the decline in male employment. In Britain, the NEET rate among the young (NEET stands for not in employment education or training) is pushing 20%. In the U.S., the unemployment rate among black teenagers is nearly 40%. But the problem is by no means entirely racial. Male employment overall is in decline. In 1970, only 7% of American men didn’t work. Today, a fifth of American men don’t work. These men, as Fortune’s Nina Easton observes, are either “collecting unemployment, in prison, on disability, operating in the underground economy, or getting by on the paycheques of wives or girlfriends or parents.” Not coincidentally, non-marital birth rates among lower-income whites now resemble those of inner-city blacks.

Any way you look at this, it’s a time bomb. Mr. Cameron knows this, which is why he calls the riots “a huge event in the life of the nation.” Both Britain and America have developed a large, permanent underclass whose numbers are growing. Rootless, unmoored young men with no stake in society are a major threat to social order.

For many of these men, there is no path to manhood. They do not aspire to get married (especially when access to sex is not a problem), and they don’t like or can’t do the jobs (if any) that are on offer. In the absence of other social structures, they belong to gangs.

But the fix isn’t nearly as obvious as the problem. It will require much more than insisting that parents set clearer boundaries for their children. More social programs aren’t the answer either. We’ve been there, done that, for the past four decades of the welfare state. If there’s one thing we should have learned, it’s that the state is totally unable to compensate for broken families.

As for the unemployment crisis among the underclass, you can pick your root causes. Conservatives blame bad attitudes and a rotten work ethic (and correctly point out that in Britain, industrious Poles will work harder for less than the natives will). Liberals blame a lack of jobs in the post-industrial economy. Both sides are right. What neither side will say is that uncomfortably large numbers of young men have neither the attitude nor the aptitude for the jobs that are on offer, and no amount of education will make it so.

Back in the ’70s, a friend of mine taught working-class kids in Britain for a while. “What do we need to learn this for, Miss?” they would ask. They didn’t see the point. As soon as they turned 16 they planned to quit and get a job in the factory. Today the factories are gone, and the coal mines are too. The modern economy cannot absorb the kind of people who are most suited to these jobs. They are, quite simply, surplus to requirements.

This is nothing new in the history of the world – only in the history of our world. A surplus of unemployable, disruptive young males has often been the norm. Karl Marx described such people as “vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, brothel-keepers, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife-grinders, tinkers, beggars.” (He was referring to 19th-century France.) Society had different ways of dealing with the problem. Many of these men would go to war as cannon fodder. Some would go to sea, or be transported to Australia. The more ambitious ones would strike out for the new world. Today we need another way. But no one has a clue what it might be.