Not up to the job?

Climate change is the single most important issue facing the world and yet too often, as with flexible working, the approach is to continue as normal.

The only story this week is the terrible heat and the, frankly, terrifying outlook for the future. The world around us is lurching from crisis to crisis and yet somehow some parts of society seem to cling on to the idea of pretending it’s all business as normal.

There needs to be ongoing, public debate about how we live in a rapidly heating world. But climate change has not figured much in the hustings for our next Prime Minister until this week, when it became impossible to ignore it. Even so there is no real sense of urgency. Will we find that, when the temperature has fallen, the subject drops off the agenda again until the next heatwave or flooding or forest fire?

Climate change is the most serious threat we face today, but it’s by no means the only one. Yet the political talk in the leadership campaign could be transposed several decades back and not look out of place. As if tax cuts are even remotely going to solve the multiple challenges of the 21st century – indeed, they will make many of the problems facing the poorest worse by cutting public services even further for those who most need them.

So what do we do? In the absence of relevant political debate, more and more social and politicial issues are being outsourced to employers, except that most people don’t work for those employers who can afford to address them. It’s fabulous that some employers pay for employees to have enhanced parental leave, free access to financial advice, mental health support and GP services on call, but what of the people who don’t have these and whose employers can’t afford them? The gulf that is opening up is enormous. Many employers are trying to bridge this in some way by working with NGOs and so forth, but that barely touches the surface, the result of years of underfunding of health, social care, education and much else. And who picks up the tab for all this? Women, generally, torn between flexible working and caring responsibilities and increasingly exhausted.

I was talking to a teacher the other day. She was discussing teacher shortages and agency workers. She said her school had got rid of a teaching assistant because they were not up to scratch. So imagine her surprise when she walked into a classroom the other day to find this person was in charge of a class, covering for an absent colleague. Another friend works in social care and says the same is true there – it is impossible to find people who are trained in some of the most vital skills. I know from recent interactions with the criminal justice system that the justice system is under enormous strain and suffering huge backlogs and seems to be leading to cases being written off.

This is not a temporary thing. The ONS stats have been showing the labour shortages issues for months and yet where is the sense of urgency from government? Instead, we have ministers going on about record unemployment, ignoring the elephant in the room because there is no real plan for how to deal with it bar some midlife MOTs and perhaps a hope that if they stall for long enough some sort of technical fix will come up.

One wonders if even the answers that are suggested by experts – allowing in more people from the EU to fill key jobs [if they would come following the sheer nastiness of some parts of the Brexit campaign], trying to get more older people back in jobs through more flexible working and upskilling – are sufficient to address the scale of the demographic problem. Instead we go on about ‘global Britain’ as if by saying it everyone else is obliged to believe it, pay other countries to take our asylum seekers and baton down the hatches. The absence of any new thinking is stark. And we need some mighty soon.

Picture credit: Oregon Department of Forestry and wikimedia commons.



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