12th October 2011

Youth unemployment: the case for optimism

‘Youth unemployment highest since records began’, we can expect to see this headline featured in many news reports today. The latest figures show that ILO unemployment amongst 16-24 year olds has not reached 1 million, as previously feared. But at 991,000 the youth unemployment level is the highest since comparable records began in 1992.

The best reports will add that if we remove students looking for part-time work the unemployment level - at 721,000 - is lower than previous peaks in 1993 and 1985 (using similar data). They may also note that higher participation in education, as many young people choose to stay out of a difficult labour market and a positive trend it itself, has reduced the size of the economically active population. This affects the unemployment rate so, despite a smaller number unemployed not in full-time education than in the past, the unemployment rate is higher.

However too many reports will speak of ‘desperation’ and a ‘lost generation’. It’s completely understandable, even 721,000 is far too many young people unemployed and any waste of their potential is an emotive issue. But I can also see danger in the way we talk both about the young unemployed themselves and about their prospects of finding work.

For young people actively seeking work, the lack of available jobs and a surplus of more experienced labour are largely what is keeping them out of employment. With few resources to spare, the government is looking to employers to create opportunities for young people.

But in tough economic times employers have to focus on keeping their businesses afloat. Small and medium enterprises can’t afford corporate social responsibility. Employers that recruit young people find that they bring new ideas, challenge assumptions and improve on standard practice. But many employers are reluctant to do so, fed on a diet of news reports of school leavers without basic literacy and numeracy, and graduates with no understanding of work. In our concern to highlight how we are failing young people, we have made young people a financial risk that employers can’t afford to take.

Anyone who has spent time out of work will know that unemployment creates self-doubt. Add that to a widespread ‘lack of hope’ narrative and you have a double-whammy. As a former public sector worker, I can empathise with young jobseekers. Both groups often hear that their employment chances are close to non-existent. ‘Just above the long-term unemployed and the recently released from prison’ is how I heard the image of public sector workers described the other day.

All the evidence points to the fact that being engaged with the labour market and keeping up job search activity is what leads to employment. But many young people speak about how difficult it is to keep trying, to maintain the momentum in the face of rejection. Most of them will not respond to their situation by looting JJB Sports but if there is any reason to think that lack of hope was connected to this summer’s unrest then it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to find ways to create some optimism.

We hope to see more from the government on help for young people in the forthcoming NEET strategy (announced by the Deputy Prime Minister for ‘later in 2011’). However, there is an immediate and important role for organisations like our own, who work with young jobseekers on a daily basis, to celebrate their many successes. That’s not to say that we should hide the facts, nor do I under-estimate the scale of the challenge faced by young people today. However young people succeed in finding work every day, even during these difficult economic times, and many employers report real business benefits from recruiting young staff. Our role is to seek out those positive examples and shout about them, loudly.

Gradcore and Graduates Yorkshire will continue to gather case studies that celebrate success and promote them on our sites as well as giving a voice to graduates on our blog.

To comment on this blog you can reach us on Twitter @rowan_foster or @gradcore. You can also email Rowan.Foster@gradcore.co.uk