The Office for National Statistics in the United Kingdom released new unemployment figures last week, showing that approximately one million, or one in five, young people are unemployed. This is not a problem restricted to the United Kingdom; it’s a global issue, as evidenced by rising unrest in Spain, Greece, and other regions. Unemployment rates for youth are skyrocketing, even in nations where the overall unemployment rate is staying relatively low. In the UK, where protests against budget cuts in service areas like education and disability have been ongoing for months, these statistics illustrate another phenomenon. It is not just that youth don’t have jobs, it’s that they are beginning to think they won’t ever get jobs.
The Prince’s Trust reports that many of the poorest Britons feel they have no future.
The Princes Trust/RBS Report found that one in four of those from deprived homes (26 per cent) believe that “few” or “none” of their career goals are achievable, because “people like them don’t succeed in life” – compared to just seven per cent of those from affluent families. The research also shows how one in ten young people from the poorest families did not have their own bed when they were growing up. More than a quarter (29 per cent) had few or no books in their home, while one in three were “rarely” or “never” read to by their parents. More than a third (36 per cent) did not have anywhere quiet at home to do their schoolwork, two-fifths did not have a desk and more than a quarter had no access to a computer.
David Cameron blames the situation on ‘opportunity problems,’ arguing that students are leaving school without adequate qualifications, while Martina Milburn, chief executive of the Prince’s Trust, suggests that:
The aspiration gap between the UK’s richest and poorest young people is creating a ‘youth underclass’, who tragically feel they have no future.
This is an interesting framing, and it’s important to examine it because this is included in the official conclusions of the report. Note that Milburn says youth feel they have no future, as though if those silly youth just woke up and smelled the coffee, they’d see how wrong they are. Discussing ways to address rising inequality and poverty among youth, the trust says there’s an ‘aspiration gap.’ This is not the first time the aspiration gap has been blamed for social inequality in the United Kingdom; examining social mobility in 2008, this issue was fingered as the culprit behind the failure to succeed for many youth. Officials suggest interventions like community education and outreach to make youth aware of their opportunities and promote equality.
These suggestions are being made in the face of gross inequality; going to a workshop about how to get to university when you don’t even have a bed, let alone books, has a note of the bizarre, to say the least. And even as officials argue that many youth feel trapped in hopeless situations, government statisticians point out that one effect of continually depressed economic circumstances is the tendency to believe that your situation is hopeless:
Persistently high unemployment “could eventually result in discouragement and permanent withdrawal from the labour force”, especially among younger and less skilled workers. The stark warnings about a permanently higher level of unemployment comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the “club” comprising all the world’s developing economies, including the UK.
Britain is one of a number of countries identified as being at particular risk of seeing the present high levels of youth unemployment – standing at almost 1 million 16 to 24-year-olds – turning permanent. The reason, the OECD said, is that alienation of the workforce and a failure to acquire and keep skills through up-to-date on-the-job training, will mean some people in effect leaving the labour force. (source)
‘Don’t feel hopeless, kids, you have opportunities!’ There is a certain element of bootstrapping here in the suggestions that youth are to blame for feeling hopeless in the current economic climate. They just need to have a more upbeat attitude, you know!
Numerous studies on youth growing up during recessions and economic depressions indicate that a phenomenon known as economic scarring occurs. Put in simple terms, when unemployment is high, fewer opportunities are available, fewer youth attend college, fewer youth attain high level jobs. This has a lifetime impact; people are not joking when they say that current economic conditions could create a new lost generation. Economic impacts are multigenerational. It is very easy to slip into poverty, and much, much harder to claw your way out of it. As more members of the middle classes join the lower classes, opportunities shrink for youth, and they in turn will pass those diminished opportunities down to their own children. Minorities in particular are hard hit by the economy, but even if you focus on conditions for white male college graduates, the long term labour outlook is grim.
This is not about feeling hopeless. This is about a cascading set of social structures that forces you into untenable living circumstances and has a permanent impact not just on your life, but on the lives of your descendants. Simply bucking up and getting more cheerful about the situation is really not going to resolve the problem. Living through a depression or recession as a youth will change the rest of your life. Period. No matter how chipper you are about the jobs outlook, your chance of going to college, your opportunities in terms of eventually attaining a high-paying job in a profession you love.
Sue Dunn discusses the Prince’s Trust report, and what it means for some of the poorest regions of England:
“But we do face a challenge due to the Government’s scrapping of the educational maintenance allowance (EMA).
“We’re worried that pre-16s won’t now be able to access their personal choices because of financial barriers, so that is something we will have to address.”
There are not enough workshops in the world to address this problem. Even as community organisations attempt to intervene with training, workshops, and other tools to close the ‘aspiration gap,’ the government busily hacks and slashes at funding to deny more opportunities to youth. At the same time, the UK is struggling with youth crime and sinks significant resources into crime and punishment. Desperate youth without opportunities and no support network can be forced into criminal activity, and when they do time and leave prison with no support, recidivism rates tend to be high.
This is a deep social problem that cannot easily be resolved. One thing is for certain; putting the blame for the youth underclass on youth themselves is the wrong way to go about it. Young people are not responsible for feeling hopeless in a grim economy that provides few opportunities for them. They are certainly not responsible for feeling worthless in a society that’s constantly cutting the services they need to underscore how little they seem to matter to those in power. Members of the lower classes are not responsible for being trapped in the lower classes. That would be the fault of members of the upper classes who actively work to keep them trapped there.