27 November 2020

Employment fears and hopes for integration: Talk/together in the West Midlands

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Unemployment and integration were top of mind throughout our talk/together discussions with people in the West Midlands, writes Jake Puddle.

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Steve Ballinger
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The Talk/together project recently hosted discussions with members of the public in the West Midlands, where we heard from people in Birmingham, Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent and Worcestershire. Concerns over lockdown fatigue and unemployment were prominent, but also balanced with hopeful expectations that a post-pandemic society could prioritise empathy and social connection between different ethnic and faith groups.

We really just need something to look forward to. I’m fed up of looking at my diary and each week it’s empty.”

The frustrations of lockdown were being keenly felt throughout our discussions, with feelings of isolation and exhaustion a recurring theme. Yet the re-introduction of England’s lockdown also appeared to have buoyed perceptions of national unity. Concerns about social distancing rulebreakers were notably scarcer; meanwhile many spoke of how the second lockdown had encouraged people to ‘pull together’ and comply with public health restrictions. This was partly driven by a shared determination to see restrictions eased for Christmas. While there was a common sense of low national morale, the festive period was seen as a reason to ‘look ahead’ – offering some light at the end of the tunnel after a gloomy and stressful few months, even if family celebrations would be smaller and quieter than usual.

As in preceding weeks, the rise in unemployment – particularly for young people – emerged as a salient topic. ONS figures show that the number of 16-24 year-olds in employment has fallen by 8% (306,000) since the beginning of the pandemic, and there were fears that the decline in opportunities for this age group could entrench generational divides over the longer term. Many people were anxious that the impact of the pandemic on retail and hospitality industries would disproportionally harm the prospects of a younger generation whose first jobs were often in these sectors. Others shared stories of children whose apprenticeships were under threat, or of graduates and A-level students whose prospects were now limited. Seen against a backdrop of rising house prices, those of all generations expressed sympathy that the current generation were facing a harder life than their parents. Several stressed the need for government investment to help create and protect entry-level jobs.

“I think the divide between age groups is growing; I’m quite worried about that, especially with my daughter. She’s 14 and worried about what sort of job she’s going to be able to get.”

The cities and large towns of the West Midlands are among the most ethnically diverse in the UK. Over 300,000 Muslims now live in Birmingham, with their numbers concentrated in inner city wards. We asked how people from different ethnic and faith backgrounds get on with each other in the West Midlands. People shared concerns about hate crime and residential segregation. But we were also told a story of integration slowly happening across generations in the West Midlands. People felt that their cities were very different places to how they were in the past. Coventry was seen to have come a long way since the racial tensions of the 1970s and 80s, when the National Front had once been active. Residents spoke of a well-integrated city where they saw “different cultures mixing and gelling together on a daily basis.”

We were also struck by the high levels of everyday contact that many people had with those from different ethnic and faith groups to their own. Schools and tworkplaces were seen as crucial environments for this interaction. We heard stories of inter-ethnic friendships made at work. Offices had celebrated Eid and Diwali, as well as Christmas. The COVID relief efforts had also often been led by different faith communities working together. Some people hoped that this cross-community support represented a threshold moment – where community spirit would crystalise into longer term social contact once public health restrictions were eased.

Across the community, regardless of [people’s] race, everyone has got together and helped each other out, asking their neighbour if they’ve got food or need anything from the shop […] it was an eye opener.”

Strengthening social connection is a core aim of the /Together coalition: particularly bridging connections between different social groups. It is such contact that has the potential to reduce prejudice and to improve both empathy and trust towards the ‘other’. In many parts of the West Midlands, these bridging links have long been forged in workplaces and in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods. Throughout the pandemic, such connections have been strengthened and expanded through the COVID relief effort. The challenge is now to find ways to make sure that these new links continue to grow into the future.

Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever public conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. It is coordinated by British Future as part of /Together, a new coalition of household names like the NHS and the Scouts and local organisations from across the UK. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk