Many of the social issues and inequalities being talked about as a result of the current pandemic are not new. The groups of people in the UK who suffered disproportionately from poverty before are the same ones whose vulnerability is exposed now - young people are more than twice as likely to work for employers that have closed down; black and minority ethnic communities seem to be more at risk from the virus; women make up 77% of high risk workers, 80% of unpaid carers and 69% of low earners.
Evidence from previous recessions suggests young people entering the labour market this year will face lower employment and earnings for years to come, especially those who face ‘double disadvantage’. A recent survey of young people from all demographics in Scotland concluded that 96% fear for their future and 77% are worried about their mental wellbeing.
We’ve seen recently how our collective wellbeing as a society is connected. As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. For key sections of our workforce the current situation has highlighted not only their vulnerability, but also their considerable value. Charities deliver difficult, specialised and essential services vital to the proper functioning of our society. Schools and care homes perform many more functions for us in our society than they are given credit for. We’ve seen how reliant we all are on huge sections of the workforce we’ve too frequently taken for granted and even, in the worst cases, stigmatised as low-skilled.
The nature of the challenges facing us – not only inequality, but also other long-term trends, such as an ageing population – can only be solved by working across sectors and through focused, clear ambition. The Beveridge report that laid the foundations for the welfare state offered several guiding principles, including that a “revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not patching”. I hope the current context can provide a similar opportunity for agreeing on ambitious actions to create a better future.
Finding common purpose for better social outcomes
We’ve moved beyond Milton Friedman’s narrow view of the role of business in society. The potential, and indeed the responsibility, of the private sector in helping us achieve the social goals we want to see can be developed further. This begins with principles for fair work such as the importance of a Living Wage, security of hours and being treated with respect. Progress is also being made on expectations for diversity and inclusion in the workforce, although this needs to accelerate significantly and we’ll need to work doubly hard in the years ahead. Tax is a contribution businesses make to the greater good, not something that can or should be avoided if you want to partake in the other benefits that society gives.
The Edinburgh Poverty Commission, of which I’m a member, recently published an interim report looking at the impact of Coronavirus. It highlighted some bold moves already made, such as those to address homelessness and food poverty. It’s vital we lock these gains in and where possible, go further. Our Commission has listened to the voices of those experiencing poverty and we need to continue to ensure their voices are heard if we’re to identify the best solutions.
Employers of all sectors need to provide employees with decent, secure income and treat people fairly at work. In Edinburgh in particular, low-paid, volatile work is too common and we currently pay the price elsewhere. Right now, this is a particular issue for younger workers. For many employers, even pledging to maintain and protect their apprentice and school-leaver pathways in any coming recession will be a vital contribution to our city’s wellbeing.
As the Greek proverb says “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in” and if we want to give future generations hope that they can live in a better and fairer world than we do now, we need to take the seeds of what we already have and start planting, invest in an ambitious future vision, and work hard for it now.
Sandy MacDonald, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Standard Life Aberdeen Plc and DYW Industry Task Force Member