The extent of young worker employment in ‘blind alley’ occupations was seen by contemporaries as one of the most disturbing aspects of the problem of ‘under-employment’ in Britain during the interwar period. Especially during the 1930s, these jobs were to be found not only in the growing distribution sector of the economy, but also in traditional industries like printing where apprenticeship was in decline, and in the expanding mass production industries.1 This concern was not new in the interwar period, however; the assumptions of policy makers continued to be influenced by the pre-1914 context. The question of juvenile labour had been subsumed beneath a wider concern about the so-called ‘youth problem’ which had surfaced in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century2

This was related to a perceived erosion of British economic competitiveness, the consequent need to improve national efficiency, and fears arising from the threat of urban degeneration in the years preceding the first world war. The demand for juvenile labour actually rose during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods because of the increased subdivision of work in industry and the growth of sectors like transport and distribution that relied heavily on juveniles. Although juvenile labour was still cheap relative to adult labour, its price was rising and job opportunities were abundant. There was a high level of labour mobility among juveniles. Anxiety was expressed about what would happen to them in later life, couched in the moralising language of ‘fecklessness’ and ‘an easy labour market’, relating, in turn, to the labour unrest of the period.3 An alarming picture was drawn of the degeneration of Britain’s large cities that relied on ‘living on human capital’ in an economically wasteful and socially threatening way, whilst depending increasingly on rural immigration for their ‘best workers.’4