Unemployment is rightly termed a social disease, and it is rapidly turning into an epidemic within one of the most vulnerable and important groups of all: the young.
Figures released on 13 April were stomach-turning: more than 1 in 5 people aged 16-25 are now out of work; within just a few months, the number of jobless young could reach 1 million.
The prognosis for the economy is bleak. Research by the London School of Economics suggests that the average ‘NEET’ (young person Not in Employment, Education or Training) costs the state £97,000 over their lifetime. More importantly, there are shocking implications for the future health and wellbeing of an entire generation of Britons. A survey conducted by the Macquorie Group Foundation/You Gov between 26-29 November 2010 revealed that those young people who were unemployed were twice as likely to suffer debilitating physical and mental health conditions, including self-harm and panic attacks. Research undertaken by The Young Foundation also publicised that NEETs are more likely than their peers to have mental health problems, learning disabilities and a dependence on substances.
This epidemic is virulent and wide reaching; touching the poor school drop-out and middle-class graduate alike. An effective cure must therefore consist of a variety of interlocking programmes that serve to prevent and protect all those at risk.
First, the inoculation. The most consistent predictors of NEET status are poor school attendance (recurrent truants are seven times more likely to be NEET at 16); belonging to a home where no-one works; exiting the care system; and being a teenage parent. Remedying and reducing the incidence of these predictors at an early stage in a child’s life is key to solving the problem.
The solutions are varied, and there’s no harm in trying them all.
An increase in alternative education environments, such as Studio Schools, after-school clubs and community youth centres, could help cultivate those children and teens floundering in our regimented state schools. Employment schemes that target jobless parents should be broadened. A reconstituted care scheme that prioritises the support of those undergoing the transition into adulthood, and a more comprehensive network of state services that seeks to both reduce incidences of teen pregnancies and improve the range of support options available to young mothers and fathers, would also tackle the NEET disease at its very roots.
Second, the antidote to the current wave of youth unemployment. Interestingly, arguments that suggest youth unemployment is attributable to sloth and a range of perverse disincentives in the welfare system seem wide of the mark. NEETs in Leeds interviewed by The Guardian in January claimed they had a real desire to work, and that they wanted to have a purpose, to have a reason to wake up in the morning. Similarly, a survey of NEETs in Bedford reported that when asked, young people listed possession of a job as their uppermost need.
Therefore, the problem must be understood as the product of economic and institutional failure. The Adam Smith Institute suggests that the National Minimum Wage prices young people out of employment, as businesses are reluctant to shell out between £4 and £5 an hour for unskilled labour. Furthermore, the leap from the Youth National Minimum Wage to the National Minimum Wage, for which Britons become eligible at 21, has been highlighted as a reason why those under this magic number are disinclined to seek employment. Why not do something radical, and standardise the Minimum Wage across all ages?
On institutions, the evidence suggests that those services attempting to meet the needs of NEETs are overstretched, understaffed, and ill-equipped to provide the lengthy, one-on-one support needed to ensure a successful transition into full-time work. Some services are bureaucratic labyrinths to the uninitiated, and some choose not to seek available state help because of the complexity of its workings and/or previous experience of disappointment.
This is an area where ‘The Big Society’ needs to step in, and there are some encouraging steps in the right direction. Make It Happen is a government-sponsored programme helping graduates to establish their own firms, while the Calman Trust recently secured £16millon for a training hotel in the Scottish Highlands, designed to both teach and employ jobless youngsters.
If, as David Cameron insisted in PMQs in January, “the long term structural problem of youth unemployment” is one which the government has “to get a grip on”, it needs to start now, and it needs to recruit those outside parliament – you and me – to lend a hand.