Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Youth Unemployment

Writing in the national press in 2011, the Archbishop has called for the Government to stand by its pledge to level out inequality in Britain - and has said that income inequality and youth unemployment are giants that must be “slayed”.  His article follows:

I have spoken about the urgent task that faces us, of challenging the inequalities of income, and of creating a fairer society. Some people may be asking why I believe that we need a compelling culture shift in order to achieve fairness.

If someone living in the 19th century had been told that by the 21st century nearly everyone in this country would not only have bathrooms with hot and cold running water, but also a car, central heating, every kind of electronic gadgetry, and usually more than enough to eat, they would have shaken their heads in disbelief, or imagined that people would be living in some kind of earthly paradise.

Sadly, the reality today is tinged with bewilderment.  Rates of drug abuse and violence are high.  Mental illness seems to have become more common (not just better recognised) over the last generation or so. Rates of self-harm among teenage girls are also high and seem to be increasing. Personal debt has hit a record high.

So what has gone wrong?  What has led to the loss of paradise?  Almost exactly two years ago, David Cameron said in a major speech that “Research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in The Spirit Level, has shown that among the richest countries, it's the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator ...”

David Cameron was right to draw attention to this book.  Its essential message, backed up by sound social science research, is about the way inequality damages community life and the relationships which hold us together.  It shows that a wide range of social problems are much more common in societies with larger income differences between rich and poor.  Sadly, Britain is among the more unequal of the rich countries.  As a result it has worse health, higher teenage birth rates, more people in prison, more mental illness, more obesity, more drug abuse, lower levels of child wellbeing, high personal debt, and less social mobility than the more equal of the rich countries.

It is a sorry picture and one which throws new light on the puzzling contrast between the material success of the United Kingdom and her many social failings.  Among the rich countries, the USA and Portugal stand out both as more unequal than Britain and doing worse on most of these measures.

The countries which do better are the more equal societies – particularly the Scandinavian countries and Japan.   Surprise, surprise! There was no social violence or looting of shops after the recent earthquake and tsunami, and the explosions at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. Why? Japan is a more equal society. What touches one neighbour, touches the rest.

Whether or not we have close friends or relatives suffering from financial, and employment inequality, these problems diminish the quality of life for all of us.  As if to echo John Donne’s poem ‘No man is an island’, David Cameron, in the same speech two years ago said, “We all know in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it.”

No one can doubt that we would all feel better in a society that is friendlier and more at ease with itself; a cohesive society with less violence, fewer drug problems, a healthier society with well-being for all, in which children’s chances in life were fairer.  We should not have to accept it as normal to feel nervous walking home alone at night in our major cities and it is a sad indictment of our society that we have young people who feel that they cannot enjoy themselves on a Friday or Saturday night without binge drinking.

Many different attempts have been made to solve these problems, but new insights provide new hope. Evidence-based research confirms what many have always believed: that inequality is divisive. It weakens the bonds of caring, kindness and trust between us.  Although every problem has many causes, bigger income differences seem to multiply all the difficulties of deprivation and low social status.  By making the social pyramid steeper, social status becomes even more important.  If we want a happier and less divided society then an important step forward would be to reduce the scale of income differences between rich and poor.

At a time when the incomes of the less well-off have shown little or no improvement, top incomes have continued to increase rapidly.

Added to this are the effects of unemployment. Over 20 percent (almost a million) young people from 16-24years old are without jobs. The trend is upwards and the percentage is likely to be twice as high in some of the deprived areas. The worst affected area is Hartlepool, which has recorded a 3.5 percent rise in young job-seekers, followed by nearby Darlington.

In 1942, after just eleven months work during one of the darkest periods of the Second World War, William Beveridge, working very closely with William Temple, a contemporary of his at Balliol College, produced his ground breaking report on the future of the welfare state.  He outlined plans for an attack – not on the military enemy – but on the “five giants” – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – which he saw as damaging society from within.

The Giants which we now face in the early 21st century are Income Inequality and rising Unemployment – particularly among young people.  They harm individuals and the social fabric which knits us together.   If we are not to see a generation of young people damaged by long term unemployment and a society becoming increasingly anti-social, we need resolute action to tackle these two insidious and corrosive giants.

Although the economic situation is so unsettled and may get worse before it gets better, circumstances are still very much less difficult than they were when Beveridge drew up his plans.  As we face whatever economic storms may be on the horizon, it becomes more – rather than less – urgent to reduce the social fragmentation Income Inequality and Youth Unemployment bring.  It is not simply that a more cohesive and fairer society is a nicer place to live: less divided societies are also stronger and more adaptable.

In the absence of powerful counter action, the tendency is almost always for the costs of economic difficulties to end up on the shoulders of the most vulnerable at the bottom of society’s social and economic ladder. That way we will experience the damage, sense of unfairness and understandable anger which we have already seen in some countries.  That will add to our difficulties and we will emerge as an even more divided and dysfunctional society.

Let us instead endeavour to emerge from the economic difficulties of the next few years a better society than we are now.  The groundswell of public opinion in favour of reducing income differences makes it easier for the government to act against these two giants.

A recent study from the St Pauls’ Institute found that 75 percent of the financial services professionals working in the City (386 of 515 people surveyed) thought that income differences were too large.  In our bones we all know that huge inequalities are an anachronism which lies uneasily with the growing interdependence of our lives in the modern world.   Together we must slay the giants of Income Inequality and Youth Unemployment.