In the opening chapter of his biography, Dickens, Peter Ackroyd points out the parallels between our time and that of the Victorians.
Dickens’s death came as evidence of a giant transition; in these last decades of the 19th century, the English people were witnesses to the fatal disruptions of an old order and the uneasy beginnings of a new. There are times, when looking at Dickens, or when looking at the people who mourned him, that the years between his time and our own vanish. And we are looking at ourselves.
Truly we are in the process of a shift. Not only is the West losing its economic dominance to the East, the very basis of capitalism has been called into question. Now, 200 years after the birth of Charles Dickens, with real gloom centring on the economy both here and across the world, there are questions to be asked about the values we hold as a society. Questions that manifest themselves in the distribution of wealth, support for the weak and infirm and growing unemployment figures.
As we worry about future employment and career opportunities for today’s youth and care of the elderly, so Dickens addressed these concerns in his magnificent novels. Poverty, the precarious nature of employment in difficult economic times, working conditions, child labour and our responsibilities to others were themes that threaded through his storylines.
While working conditions in the West have improved, in 2012 uncertainty over our own personal future has increased. Though young people are encouraged to work hard at school so that they are able to go on to university, graduating students are finding it increasingly difficult to find paid work. The Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that one in ten of those who graduated in 2009 still had no job after six months. Nearly 20,000 were unemployed, up by a quarter on 2008. Those faring most badly had studied computer science (17%) and mass communication (14%), but worst of all, nearly 3,000 creative arts and design graduates were not in paid work, the highest from any subject area.
The Statistics Agency also reported on a study of 50,000 graduates who left university in 2007, and found that they were more likely to be unemployed than their predecessors. The number remaining jobless after three years has been steadily rising over the past decade – from 2.3% to 3.6%.
In December 2011, the news was worse: graduate employment had hit a 15-year high, with one in five graduates from 2010 out of work a year later. Massive youth unemployment threatens the social and economic future of this country.
The human context of statistics like these can be easy to miss. Loss of confidence, growing feelings of impotence, a constant rejection that undermines self-worth and the difficulties of keeping abreast of new skills and technologies are the very real consequences that these figures represent.
Dickens had the great gift of being able to illustrate an awful, searing reality with a personal story. Despite the harsh circumstances that he depicted, nevertheless there was always a dose of optimism. From Great Expectations to Hard Times, the idea that you can work out your future and build a new career at a time of great economic transition remains present.
At the London College of Fashion, we are all too cognizant of the employment prospects for our students. We understand that they must leave equipped with the skills to find work, but that does not mean we compromise on helping them to have a full learning experience so that they undertake a journey of discovery.
We believe that we should pass on our values. We want our students to create fashion which has quality of design, is made of materials that will last and can be adapted, and to have looked at the implications of how the clothes are to be recycled. We don’t have to slip back into Dickensian times just because money and work are in short supply.
The same goes for business. Now is the time to emphasise factors such as corporate social responsibility. New technologies and the influence of social media, giving instant feedback on the quality of a product or service, makes corporate social responsibility and a wider understanding of the implications of what we offer within the fashion industry more, not less, important.
In Hard Times, Dickens questioned the intrinsic nature of the way industry was organised, to challenge the fact that an industry’s productivity was enhanced at the expense of the human satisfaction and well-being they were supposed to be serving. Two centuries on, we do not want to be responsible for turning the clock back.