Cross Party Silence on the real challenges of youth unemployment

Peter Wells, Director of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies –

The International Labour Organisation estimates that 71 million young people are unemployed in the world today. This figure is down from a post financial crisis high of 75 million in 2012; nevertheless it remains an alarming figure.

In the UK, unemployment between 18-24 year olds has fallen from over one million in 2012 to 562,000 in May 2017, with 365,000 (5.1 per cent of the youth population) who are unemployed and not in full time education.

Even more worrying is that there are now over 200 thousand young people who are neither employed, in education, training, or claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance – they are hidden from the benefit, education and employment systems. In part this is due to the introduction of harsher welfare conditions in the form of benefit sanctions.

Prior to the General Election being called the government had regarded youth unemployment as a resolved issue, after all fewer young people were claiming benefits. However, the nature of this employment is far from secure. The labour market faced by young people in the UK in 2017 is a harsh reality, with many scraping by on zero hours contracts, commuting long hours to get to unpaid internships, juggling multiple jobs, or working in the ‘gig’ economy as ‘independent contractors’ whilst wearing the company logo on their cycling jacket. This situation is further exacerbated by the other burdens shouldered by young adults such as the high cost of rented accommodation. We know that periods of unemployment of more than six months permanent scars in the form of  lower than expected earnings throughout their career and worse mental health. We could surmise that persistent insecurity in housing and labour markets may also create similar scars.

There are strong short and long term social and economic benefits to addressing youth unemployment. It is therefore surprising that there is near silence across all the party manifestos on how to address this problem. The Conservative Party manifesto comes closest to naming the issue by saying: “We will also provide targeted support for young people between the ages of 18 and 24 so that everyone, no matter what their start in life, is given the very best chance of getting into work.” However, no details on the scope and scale of such an initiative are provided. The Labour Party manifesto offers wide ranging and radical measures to change the way the UK economy works, including the repeal of some welfare reforms, strengthening the rights of employees, and scrapping University tuition fees.  In the long term these changes would likely bring manifold benefits for young people. The Liberal Democrat manifesto remains silent on the topic of youth unemployment.

The Green Party devotes the most space to young people in its manifesto with a section titled ‘Our Promise to Young People’ which includes proposals to ‘create a fairer working world for young people’ through for instance raising the national minimum wage to a living wage for all. But again, there is not much which directly addresses issues around unemployment.

Youth unemployment is not just a UK issue as the ILO figures bear out, indeed in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece it is far higher than the UK. However, countries with lower levels of unemployment such as  Austria, Germany and the Netherlands provide lessons as to the institutions and programmes which provide high quality support to assist young people move from secondary education, through training, further and higher education, and into work.

There are national economic and social imperatives for a better and fairer job market for young people. One step in the right direction would be to ensure that all young people are better equipped for the labour market, including the reinstatement of high quality careers guidance in schools, and supported in their search for employment. We also need more ambitious measures than the current models of apprenticeships and traineeships currently offer, to require employers to employ, develop and then retain the skills of young people.

Despite the lack of focus on youth unemployment in the run up to the 2017 General Election it will be difficult for the next UK government to ignore this crisis when in power. The long term benefits for the national economy, for employers, for young people and society as a whole are too great to remain silent on for any longer.

Peter Wells is professor of public policy analysis and evaluation, and Assistant Dean for Research and Knowledge Transfer in the Faculty of Development and Society. He is also leads research projects in the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR) at Sheffield Hallam and is Director of the Sheffield Institute for Policy Studies.

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