What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, part three: Unemployment

‘Unemployment haunted British culture in the early 1980s’, wrote Richard Vinen,[1] and this is evident in The Young Ones. The Conservatives had campaigned in 1979 on the high level of unemployment under Labour (famously captured in the pictures of the dole queue under the banner ‘Labour isn’t working’), but it significantly increased under Thatcher during her first term in office. Ruth Levitas notes that when Thatcher entered 10 Downing St, the unemployment level was 1,299,300, but by January 1982, it was 3 million.[2]  Remaining high until 1986, high unemployment was seen by the Thatcher government as a necessary evil and the price to be paid for curbing inflation. In her autobiography, Thatcher herself wrote about this:

Other ministers, however, saw little that was positive in this picture. The believed that unemployment over three million – the figure now predicted – was politically unacceptable and that higher government spending should be used to accelerate and strengthen economic recovery. My own analysis was entirely different: the way to achieve recovery was to ensure that a smaller proportion of the nation’s income went to government, freeing resources for the private sector where the majority of people worked.[3]

In The Young Ones, the issue of unemployment was referred to in several episodes and became the focus of one episode (‘Cash’).

In the episode ‘Demolition’, the ‘yoof’ TV program Nozin’ Around does a segment on unemployment. The female presenter Maggie explains it this way:

Hey, yeah! Really great! And now, I’m gonna be looking at what it’s like to be a young unemployed adult! Because–more young adults are becoming unemployed on account of they can’t find work! Basically, the problem is this: if you haven’t got a job, then you outta work! And that means only one thing– unemployment!

The other presenter Baz (played by Ben Elton) interviews Roland Perceval, Career’s Officer at East London College, who offer the bland words of encouragement:

Well, surely, Baz, your mates must realize that there definitely is a point…

But adds the caveat, which would eliminate most unemployed youth:

Oh, I should stress that you do have to have a degree…

This reflects that youth unemployment (particularly amongst school-leavers and lower class youth who were entering the search for work without qualifications) was far higher than the national average and that demands for young people searching for work to have degrees only alienated and demotivated them.

In the second episode ‘Oil’, the high level of unemployment is referred to off-handedly by Rik in another sanctimonious moment (at 5.15):

Rik: Oh, ha ha, very funny. I suppose you think it’s very clever to laugh with three million people on the dole!

Mike: Yeah.

But the issue of unemployment is mainly focused on in the episode ‘Cash’ when the group decides that Neil needs to get a job, firstly to pay for food and then to provide for Vyvyan’s impending baby. After looking through the ‘situations vacant’ section of the paper, it emerges that the only job advert is for the Army. The ad says (at 6.03):


After being rejected from the Army for stating that he was a pacifist, the group sign Neil up to become a police officer (there is a sign outside the police station saying ‘We take absolutely anyone’). This exchange with Benito Mussolini was mentioned in the previous post.

This episode highlights the dire economic situation faced by many in Britain under Thatcher and the lack of suitable employment for many youth. The Army and the police were two institutions of the state that did not receive the same level of spending decreases as other government agencies under Thatcher and traditionally were avenues for those jobseekers with no qualifications or experience, so were seen as an option for many unemployed youth.

But even if you did have a qualification, finding a job in the 1980s was difficult, as demonstrated in the episode ‘Summer Holiday’. In the final episode of the series, Rik, Vyvyan, Mike and Neil find themselves homeless and living on the streets. Rik blames Thatcher for this (at 3.13):

Thatcher’s Britain. Thatcher’s bloody Britain! Look at me. I’m young, I’m pretty. I’ve got 5 O Levels. Bloomin’ good grades as well, considering I didn’t do a sod of work cause I’m so hard. And look at me now! Homeless, cold, and prostitute.

But after successfully robbing a bank and escaping on a double-decker bus, Rik is more optimistic  and looks to throw off the shackles of Thatcherism:

Who needs qualifications? Who cares about Thatcher and unemployment?! We can do just exactly whatever we want to do! And you know why? Because we’re Young Ones. Bachelor boys! Crazy, mad, wild-eyed, big-bottomed anarchists!

However in the end, Rik’s optimism is short-lived as Neil drives the bus through a Cliff Richard billboard and off an actual cliff a few seconds later. So the TV show portrays the only way out of the miseries of Thatcherism are crime and death – a positive and reaffirming message for all, don’t ya think?

[1] Richard Vinen, Thatcher’s Britain: The Political and Social Upheaval of the 1980s (London: Pocket Books, 2010) p. 125.

[2] Ruth Levitas, ‘Fiddling while Britain Burns? The “Measurement” of Unemployment’, in Will Guy & Ruth Levitas (eds), Interpreting Official Statistics (London & New York: Routledge, 2005) p. 44.

[3] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years 1979-1990 (New York: Harper Collins, 1993) p. 148.



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