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We’re off to the Organizational Discourse conference to present ‘The Missing Million’

by on July 8, 2014

We are excited to be off tomorrow to the 11th International Conference on Organizational Discourse which is being hosted at Cardiff Business School. We’ll take a break from blogging for the rest of the week, back next Monday 14th July.

We’ll be presenting a paper at the conference on Friday. Here’s the abstract:

The Missing Million: the Discursive construction of age-related unemployment in the UK

On 16th November 2011 the UK Office of National Statistics quarterly Labour Market Statistics Bulletin (Office for National Statistics, 2011) reported that “unemployed people aged from 16 to 24 increased by 67,000 over the quarter to reach 1.02 million … The unemployment level and rate for people aged from 16 to 24 are the highest since directly comparable records began in 1992” (p. 2).

This announcement broke new ground for unemployment. The symbolic passing of the one million barrier for youth unemployment had been widely expected and its confirmation prompted significant debate regarding age-related unemployment. It is noteworthy that these debates did not only relate to young people. Issues relating to older age groups were already attracting significant attention, due to the effective end of mandatory retirement and announcement of a rise in pension age to 67 in the UK. Thus relative concerns and issues of unemployment for both younger and older people became the subject of much debate and, we suggest, discursive competition.
Our research examines the discursive construction of unemployment, with a particular focus on the discursive positioning of age (and categories thereof) within these debates. Drawing on a broader data set collected in respect to our research on age at work, we analyse media coverage of the ONS unemployment statistics during the two week period around this announcement. Our data comes from Web 2.0 and includes blog posts, news items, press releases, website updates and tweets. The data analysed comprises over 50 separate texts and in the region of 500 tweets; tweets are short-form micro-blogging messages (maximum 140 characters) while other texts ranged from 1 to 60 pages in length.

Discursive analysis of unemployment has highlighted overarching metaphors of fight and struggle from a governmental perspective (Straehle et al., 1999) while others have examined the moral discourses within the (virtuous) construction of paid work and the need to “rescue“ (Cole, 2008: 29) individuals through the provision of jobs (Whiteside, 2013). Embedded within these broader debates regarding unemployment and the unemployed is the stratification or identification of different categories for whom both the immediate and longer-term experiences of being out of work are said to differ. Historically such debates were highly gendered but age-dimensions have also been a long standing feature (Fevre, 2011). During the period from 1970-90 there was a focus on older men who were retired early as part of a process of managing the workforce (Walker, 2005). However, Fevre notes a transition within discussions of unemployment during the 1990’s to young people “who could not find a way in” to work (Fevre, 2011: 2). This transition has in part been enabled by the categorisation of youth unemployment within statistical analysis and the labelling of groups such as NEETs (those classified as not in employment education or training) (Furlong, 2006; MacDonald, 2011).

In this paper, our empirical attention is further given to those involved in (re)producing debates and discussions in respect to age-specific unemployment issues. Given that unemployment is widely seen as an issue embedded within the broader political system (Straehle et al., 1999; Muntigl et al., 2000) and with the subject positioning of the out of work individual as a victim as needing rescue (Cole, 2008), the unemployed are often positioned as without voice. Rather, the unemployed are represented by a variety of organizations (including charities, professional bodies, trade unions and campaign groups) who act on their behalf. In some instances, such organizations voice issues relating to the unemployed as a generic group, however increasingly they work to champion and campaign for the specific needs of various categories (Rao et al., 2000) as they compete for “discursive control” (Dostal, 2004: 443). Therefore, in addition to our interest in the discursive construction of age-related unemployment issues, we also examine the activity of these organizations in the various Web 2.0 media as these discourses are (re)produced.

As highlighted above, following the tradition of research into social movements more broadly, we take a case study approach (Rao et al., 2000) in examining the debates surrounding the November 2011 Labour Market Statistics Bulletin (Office for National Statistics, 2011). We specifically analyse how unemployment is constructed for younger and older people and explore the different voices involved in these debates. Our inclusive approach of examining discourses across the age range offers an alternative to those highlighting the issues of youth unemployment (Furlong, 2006) or concern with older workers (Ranzijn et al., 2006). This allows our analysis to unpack the differential positioning of unemployment issues and in particular to review the discursive competition for attention (Cole, 2008) (and ultimately resources) within our data.

We utilise an empirically innovative e-research approach (Authors, 2012) to untangle these issues via Web 2.0 media (O’Reilly, 2005). The few discourse studies that have utilized the Web beyond data collection have focused on particular forms, for example, examining corporate websites as discursive artefacts (Merilainen et al., 2009). Certain Web 2.0 media recreate print formats (such as newspapers), whilst new forms (such as blogging and tweeting) have emerged. These new media have been specifically implicated in the process of campaigning and therefore provide a particularly relevant research context for this empirical study (Garrett, 2006).

Our initial analysis in respect to the discursive construction of age-specific unemployment highlights three key issues at stake which form the basis of competition emerging between various organisations campaigning on behalf of different age-groups. Firstly, the discursive construction of entitlement to work which encompasses the right of individuals to choose particular forms of employment and or receive support (e.g. training) to facilitate access to work. Secondly, the discursive construction of the challenge of looking for work. This includes the positioning of the unemployed individual (of a particular age) as either able or unable to rise to this challenge (with or without support). Finally, the discursive construction of the individual and broader societal consequences of unemployment for a particular age group. Using our analysis of these three issues as the new battle ground for age-related unemployment, our full paper examines how different organizations engaged with and in this debate via Web 2.0 as the ‘missing million’ were unveiled.

To date, examinations of age and unemployment have been largely segregated with attention to either young or older age groups as the empirical focus. Our approach allows us to examine how specific age-related categories are constructed and deployed as an organising principle in ways that legitimate age-related differences with regard to unemployment. Such insights are essential to further our understandings of age-related issues in contemporary organising.

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