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.)

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