Youth unemployment

I caught the end of a nightmare discussion on TV last night, in which some employers’ representative was justifying paying young people nothing to work on the grounds that ‘many young people lack the skills to be effective workers’ and that the employer was doing a good thing providing useful work experience.

It’s quite hard to know where to start with the current nonsense about unemployment and young people.  I recognise that it is part of the defence mechanism for those who still believe in the neo-liberal view of the world – now that we have seen markets do not solve everything, and capitalism cocks up the economy pretty regularly, and the labour market above all does not clear, they need to find alternative excuses that blame the victims.  So out comes the poison: the poor go to food banks because they are feckless, living on benefits is a lifestyle choice, the young lack jobs because they are gormless.

Good sense will prevail one day.  Let’s begin by saying that unemployment for young people – as for other people – fluctuates with the economy.  Teenagers may leave school with the mathematical genius of Steven Hawking and the literacy of J. K. Rowling, but if there are no bloody jobs, they are unlikely to be employed.  Correction – the very best school and university graduates may get a job, but this does not mean the others lack work skills.  It means there are not enough vacancies.   I never met anyone who was unemployed until my twenties. This was not because we all had whizzo vocational skills.  It was because there were plenty of jobs.  Nationally unemployment was around 300,000 (a tenth of today’s real total) and concentrated in ‘depressed regions’.  In the South East where I lived, careers guidance for young people consisted of finding a job, then (if you didn’t like it) giving it up and trying another.

It really isn’t about youngsters lacking skills or motivation, or all wanting to be X Factor stars.  The youngsters I meet seem lively, motivated, realistic, keen to learn skills and comfortable with new technologies.  I grew up in London in the 1960s, and the skills of young people were, by any measure, decisively worse than they are today.  The numbers leaving school without qualifications (many of them from grammar schools) was vast, and pass rates for ‘O’ levels – the equivalent of grade C GCSE – were low.  Some secondary modern schools – and remember, that is where most students went – did not enter students for examinations at all.  Concern about adult literacy today must have some reflection on school standards then, don’t you think ?  Today’s school and college leavers are better qualified than any previous generation.

it could be argued, I guess, that certificates don’t make you employable. May be true, but unlikely. And if ministers truly believe that the most qualified cohort of young people in our nation’s history are poorly equipped for work, maybe they might look at the school curriculum, league tables, the inspection and examination system that they have designed, and which they insist this generation has to endure. The education and skills they have are the ones you insist they need, aren’t they ?  And perhaps they might remember that they abolished EMA grants for youngsters attending vocational courses a couple of years ago, a move that even government advisers describe as a ‘very bad mistake’.

It is convenient for employers to have ‘interns’ that earn no money, which has the knock-on effect that those who do not have rich parents who can subsidise them stand little chance of a desirable professional job.  It is nice for them to provide ‘zero hours’ contracts that are alleged to offer flexibility but in fact exploit workers.  The government can breathe easy when a million youngsters are idle if they can convince people that these are unemployable oafs.  Rather than pay attention to the real problems of the labour market, and the crisis of unemployment, it is easier to create a smoke screen of nonsense – about feckless youngsters or unworldly graduates – to justify the sort of bad behaviour that employers could not sustain in a boom.

What we need is (a) an economic recovery led by projects that will create useful jobs and (b) a supportive training system that links colleges and employers around real apprenticeships and vocational opportunities.  The OECD has just reported that this is absolutely what we don’t have.  Even Thatcher created YTS schemes that tried to link jobless youngsters with job experience and employers.  Yes, no misprint – even Thatcher.  Blaming young people for coming onto the labour market just after bankers have cocked up the economy and destroyed their jobs is easier than working to end the problem, but it is repulsive, and those engaging in it – people who eased into their jobs when these challenges were not around – should be ashamed.

(It has just occurred to me that the people who come out with this pernicious guff are the same ones who justify cuts in technical education and social services to reduce the national debt “so we do not leave economic difficulties to the next generation”.  The economic difficulty caused by not having a job for years is, it seems, a second order problem.  Like the economic difficulties in having inadequate housing, outdated transport, laboratories, schools and hospitals.  You couldn’t, as they say, make it up.)

Ooh, baby, baby

The quiz show Pointless had a round today in which contestants had to say which singers (I cannot bring myself to say ‘artists’ – grumpiness has its standards) released the following songs:

Bye Bye Baby                                                                                   1975

Baby                                                                                                  2010

Love to Love You Baby                                                                   1976

Plug-in Baby                                                                                     2001

I Got You Babe                                                                                1965

Hey Baby                                                                                          1962

Ice Ice Baby                                                                                      1990

Baby Come Back                                                                             1968

Baby Love                                                                                        1964

Always Be My Baby                                                                        1996

Your Baby Ain’t Your Baby Any More                                         1974

Baby One More Time                                                                     1999

Babe                                                                                                  1993

Be My Baby                                                                                      1963

Decent question, and one that stretched across the generations.  I did OK, but then, I am a trivial person.  But now, here’s a thing.  I have never heard anyone refer to their inamorata as ‘baby’.  Never.  I’ve lived in the north, Midlands and in London, Yorkshire and Lancashire.  I’ve worked with colleagues with a variety of ethnicities, genders, sexuality, and a range of ages.   It may be I don’t eavesdrop enough, though my wife would contest that.  Darling, honey, sweetheart, yep, all that, honeybun too, but never ever have I heard a British person call their partner ‘baby’.  Have you ?

Agatha Christie

In one of the more interesting periods of my life, I did some part-time broadcasting for a commercial radio station: wonderful Radio Tees (as the jingle said, “257 and 95 VHF, in stereo, stereo, stereo”).  I stood in now and again for late-night DJs who were on leave, and I still have one tape, in which I try to sound more like Bob Harris than Bob Harris.  However, my main job was to be part of a weekly 45 minute talk/arts programme – an arts programme on a commercial station, that’s how long ago it was.  Another indication of how long ago it was can be found in my being given the job of doing Agatha Christie’s obituary (yep, January 1976).

I remember talking about the clunky prose, and the outdated social attitudes (the motivation for one murder was to avoid a family discovering that the woman their son was about to marry had a black ancestor), but also noting that the books seemed to have covered every single possibility of murder. In Murder on the Orient Express, of course, everyone did it.  In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the narrator did it.  One ‘victim’ was in fact the murderer.  In another book, no-one did it, as the ‘victim’ set up a suicide to look like murder.  And so on.  As the writing went on, the plots became every more tortuous, until you had to assume that the Irish housemaid was bound to be someone’s illegitimate daughter.

What I didn’t notice at the time has been brought home whilst looking at some of the David Suchet versions that are endlessly repeated on ITV4 (sponsored by Viking Cruises – whose adverts pose the question as to whether they ever go anywhere but Budapest). This is that her characters will do anything to avoid doing a job.  There are some exceptions, but they prove the rule in this sense – that when the books have the occasional corrupt banker or irascible industrialist, or doctor, they are usually incompetent or failing, at best irascible, at worst evil or corrupt.   The idea that no-one who does a useful job ever appears to be pleasant might be significant.

The plots usually centre on contested wills.  It appears that the characters desperately need the money that the ratty industrialist or dotty aunt is leaving. The idea that they might tell their impossible relative to get lost, and go off to become a lawyer or a teacher, farmer or bank clerk or anything at all, seems not to be considered.  It was once said that the plots of most Victorian novels would collapse with the presence of antibiotics and a decent divorce law.  Ms Christie’s would have a hard time creating stories with today’s middle class, made up of people who went to college and got a job.

Secrecy and privacy

Now, the other topic that cropped up whilst I was away and making plum jam was the whole farrago of secrecy/privacy/Wikileaks/government scrutiny of e-mails/Edward Snowden, NSA and Moscow Airport.  Then there was the detention of the partner of the Guardian journalist who broke a lot of the Wikileaks story at Heathrow airport.

Sorry, folks, but I can’t help you here.  You must tell me what I should think about this.  In what way is a journalist/whistle-blower revealing the names and activities of government agents and agencies different from what Kim Philby, Burgess and Maclean got up to in the 1940s and 50s ?  We now know that led to the torture and death of western agents in the Soviet system.  I recall outraged letters to the press pointing out that Bradley/Chelsea Manning got a longer sentence for revealing US security information than the guards at Abu Ghraib prison did for humiliating and abusing their charges.  But, appalling as their conduct was, it was surely less serious than revealing nationally sensitive secrets, or placing at risk the lives of those working on our behalf in murderous environments.

Help me here.   Is the position that any piece of personal information is secret and should not be revealed, whereas any piece of government information can properly be leaked by a ‘whistle-blower’ ?   If it isn’t, and the world requires a more subtle and nuanced position, where do we draw the line ?  And if we do draw a line, doesn’t it mean that it is OK for government agencies to intercept some of our stuff, and that some people who reveal security sensitive information should be prosecuted ?


Syria has provided the main news point this week, with the UK House of Commons voting not to be involved in air strikes against the Syrian regime.  In this decision, MPs reflected UK public opinion, where only 19% (Telegraph) or 29% (Independent) believe we should support military action (and the backward regret about Iraq).   Some of the parliamentary and international debate – whether from MPs (including Ed Miliband) or from Vladimir Putin – is about being sure that the Syrian regime is behind chemical attacks.  Let’s wait to see what UN inspectors say, is the cry.  This strikes me as fudging the issue, and is not what lies behind the reservations expressed by upwards of two-thirds of the UK population.  I don’t think Mr Average in Swindon or Stockbridge thinks we should hold back because there’s a strong chance that someone else committed the latest atrocity.  They think (if they are like me) that it is pretty certain the regime is behind the chemical attack on civilians.  What we don’t see is what a drone attack or a hail of Tomahawks does to improve the situation; least of all, what would be the consequence of a land invasion except a muddled withdrawal in ten years time, with Arab public opinion blaming  ‘crusaders’ and ‘Zionists’ for the resultant chaos.  We are told by enthusiasts and drum-beaters (see David Aaronovitch in the Times) that Syria is not like Iraq, and parliamentary debate should not be overshadowed by the ghosts of the past.  But there is one way it is very like Iraq, which is that there seems to be no coherent plan to get a better solution.  Some things in life are just a mess, and creating more mess does not seem to be an improvement.

Brecht wrote a play – “The Good Woman of Szechwan” – where the heroine tries to use a gift from the Gods to help everybody in a poor town and resolve their problems.  Pretty soon she is penniless and exploited, and discovers that “what is needed is a blanket ten thousand feet wide, to cover the city”.   There is no such thing of course.  Plot spoiler – she has to invent a wicked uncle to tell those wanting more money and more help from her to go away.  The world is like that: it isn’t possible to fix everything.  Those of us who oppose action in Syria don’t support Assad – and I suspect those columnists who speak of ‘helping the regime’ know we don’t.  But neither do we support some of the repulsive ‘rebels’ who execute prisoners and eat their body parts.  We are not particularly keen to make debating points about the far greater fatalities in Darfur or the Congo (or chemical attacks by Saddam when he was our boy) that attracted little interest or proposals for intervention.  We just have the experiences of Somalia and Afghanistan and Iraq to go on to see that meddling might be an expensive way to make matters worse, and the view of Libya and Iran and Egypt to know that regime change is not always successful.

Footnote: a week or so ago, my line was to threaten the Tomahawks and drones unless specific and deliverable assurance were received – no chemical weapons, open access for humanitarian aid organisations, immediate cooperation with International War Crimes investigators.  It looks as if we might be crawling towards some version of this, with the closure of all chemical stockpiles.  War may be the continuation of diplomacy by other means, but diplomacy should be the replacement of war by other means.


We name the guilty

One last word on the party conferences, and Cameron’s appalling attempt to blame unemployed young people for their position.  In 2002 there were 200,000 unemployed young people, mostly 18/25 year olds.  There are now over 1m, the worst position in 20 years.  We therefore have other a sudden and unexplained quintupling of the idleness of young people, or the result of an economic recession.

In the past, governments – even Thatcher’s, for heaven’s sake – have regarded youth unemployment as a national emergency and put in place training programmes and subsidised work placements.   Our current masters, having vandalized the economy, more than doubled university fees and abolished Education Maintenance Allowances, find it easier to attack the victims of their policy.  This is just loathsome.