On the one hand, Lloyds Banking announces as part presumably of its magnanimous ‘Helping Britain Prosper Plan’, the axing of 3,000 jobs on top of the 54,000 lost since the 2008 financial crisis, within which the organisation illustrated its glaring economic illiteracy. In the words of one executive at the time, “Sorry, folks, we never saw it coming!” On the other, always with an eye on public relations, Lloyds in partnership with UK Youth is about to launch a ‘cutting-edge’ programme of financial literacy aimed at young people.
Forget levels of unemployment, low wages, zero-hour contracts, onerous debt and all the consequences of imposed austerity upon young people, David Rowsell, Head of the Money for Life Programme at Lloyds Banking Group, explains: “Encouraging young people to enhance their money management skills through the Money for Life programme is core to our vision to help Britain prosper. Through working with UK Youth…. we are confident that we will be able to make even more of a difference to the financial literacy of young people and communities across the UK.” Not to be outdone, Anna Smee, CEO, UK Youth, argues: “Young people face a difficult transition towards independent living as they start to manage money day to day and make critical financial decisions about their future. Their financial capability during this transition can have a big impact on their resilience and wellbeing in their adult lives”. Amidst the gushing sycophancy,”the challenges that young people face today are immense. Lloyds Banking Group understands this and through its innovative Money for Life programme it aims to empower young people to build their financial skills to make informed decisions about money,” there are surely a few ethical and political dilemmas for the world of youth work.
Our uncritical involvement in the financial and private sector’s need to revitalise its image, its need to proclaim its rediscovered sense of social responsibility is problematic. Like it or not , in 2009 a case was brought against Lloyds by HM Revenue and Customs on the grounds of tax avoidance, whilst in 2010 the Group settled with the US government to the tune of $350 million to deflect allegations of money laundering. At this very moment Lloyds is being investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority over the way it handled customers having difficulty paying their mortgages and has already set aside £350m to cover the costs of mishandling customers in arrears not only with their home loans but also with unsecured debts – so much for ’empowering’ its customers.
Talking of debt takes us to the heart of the matter. Neo-liberalism has lived off the back of increasing debt for over three decades. Contrary to Shylock it has proclaimed, ‘a borrower and a lender be’, drawing us all into its grasp via loans, credit cards and mortgages. Real wages have stagnated. Indeed the TUC report published this week reveals that real earnings have declined more than 10% since the credit crunch began in 2007, leaving the UK equal bottom with Greece in a league table of wages growth. It would be more honest for Lloyds to talk of a Debt for Life programme.
Today young people face a manufactured life of uncertainty, a precarious future created by the invisible hand of the capitalist market or as Anna Smee prefers to put it, ‘a difficult transition towards independent living’. Does she really believe that a mix of money management skills and a dose of ‘positive’ psychology are the key to a fruitful adult life?The young people, I know, in their desire to be independent yearn for free tertiary education, a job with proper pay and conditions, access to affordable housing, cheap transport, all backed by the security of, for example, a public health service based on need not profit. Certainly they are unsure about how these things might be achieved. The children of an ‘individualistic’ society, they are not instinctively collective in temperament. And, youth work does them no favours by being caught up in the delivery of structured , short-term programmes which remain fixated on being individually confident, entrepreneurial and resilient. The fittest will survive.
Fair enough, being able to sort out your personal budget is pretty useful. We used to do Money Matters sessions with the Careers Service on school-leaver residentials forty years ago. Call it financial literacy, if you wish, but it’s not ‘cutting edge’. The much more challenging task relates to political and economic literacy. How, for instance, do we get our heads around the fact that we live in a society with widening inequality? How do we weigh up different ways of doing something about the rich getting richer and the poor poorer? How do we do something about zero-hour contracts or loan sharks? These questions and countless more apply to both youth workers and young people. They are the rich content of a critical dialogue called youth work. I’m not calling for political literacy programmes, but there might be some of you keen to pursue that line. As far as workers go I can but say we have an obligation to be as politically literate as is possible, to recognise that the struggle for the common good is collective or it is nothing. Hence we need be cautious about all youth work initiatives focused on the free-floating young individual.
As for the leading organisations of the sector, such as UK Youth, isn’t it time to revive a critical and independent relationship with funders and the government? Doesn’t it feel a mite ridiculous to take Lloyds’ money without a gentle comment on the pretension of its Helping Britain Prosper rhetoric? Isn’t it necessary to speak at least a little truth to power, to suggest that the acquisition of financial acumen means very little if young people have no money or prospects in the first place? I would humbly suggest that the present political turmoil provides a crisis-sent opportunity to be bolder about what we claim to be our values -Social Justice, Equality and Diversity. What’s stopping us?