Jobless youngsters feel crisis as unfair burden

Mon, Oct 1, 2012, 01:00

Few prospects, higher college fees and welfare reform make it tough to be a young Briton, writes MARK HENNESSY

LEFT WITH higher expectations, sometimes from better education and sometimes from absorbing the mores of the years of relative plenty before the 2007 economic crisis, young Britons are struggling to make their way in the world.

A year ago, thousands of students took to the streets to protest against plans to increase third-level tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year for some courses, though the demonstrations failed to move the Conservatives/Liberal Democrats alliance. Today, the fees rise has become a reality, numbers applying for courses have fallen and resentment remains among the 18-25 age group. However, the occasional fury on the streets that marked some of last year’s demonstration has dissipated.

The protests marked something else too – a feeling that they are “the bridge generation”, faced, as they see it, with a tougher start in life than their predecessors and the prospect of poorer work pensions and difficulties in buying their own homes.

More significantly, there is the still nascent – but, so far, rarely expressed feeling – that they will end up having to take care of their parents later in life for longer than any previous generation.

“I don’t think there is so much ‘intergenerational tension’ as a feeling that those who’ve already done very well for themselves out of a successful economy are clinging to their wealth now that things aren’t going so well and that is denying opportunities to those who aren’t there yet,” says the National Union of Students’ president, Liam Burns.

Undoubtedly, younger people have suffered more over the last five years. Youth unemployment is three times higher than that among older people. During the 1990s, they were twice as likely to be without work for a time. Government measures to offer help are struggling, though the situation in London did receive a boost from the hosting of the Olympics – though how much of that will last remains an open question.

Employers can qualify for a £2,275 lump-sum payment if they recruit an unemployed 18-24 old. Extra apprenticeships are being funded, while companies are being encouraged to offer work-experience places.

“Day to day, I have to apply for tons of jobs – around 20 placements a week. When you’re not getting any letters, no responses, you feel like you’re just a number. I started to feel like I was a bit of a zombie,” Darren Greennidge told a Channel 4 News organised conference this week.

Life on benefits has few attractions, particularly given the reforms being introduced by the secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, who wants to reform social welfare rules to ensure work pays at all times. Currently, it does not. The unemployed face a marginal 90 per cent tax rate if they take up a few hours of work. However, his reforms are running into trouble, particularly among civil service chiefs who have begun to express scepticism that they can work.

Young British workers are losing out, too, to foreign competition – some of it Irish since the economic collapse at home – both for graduate-entry jobs and those at other levels, such as the proverbial “Pret-a-Manger” jobs.

Faced with complaints about hiring foreign workers, employers complain about the work ethic of British candidates, particularly those believing that a degree should guarantee higher prospects from the off.

Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King, speaking at the Channel 4 News event, was quick to criticise a questioner, who had complained she had been turned down for a job “just shelf-stacking”. Her use of “just” would be enough for most employers to “turn off” her, said Mr King, arguing that graduates have to display “an emotional investment” in a job, rather than believe it beneath them.

Mr King, who was rejected by Sainsbury’s when he applied at 16, said: “It’s important for young people to believe that when they’ve had knockbacks, so have others and you can come through it.” Predictably, his words caused a social media storm.

Meanwhile, former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband proposes that far more radical action has to be taken by the government to deal with youth employment than anything that has been envisaged up to now.

Youngsters will have to be guaranteed work if long-term unemployment is to be abolished, said Mr Miliband: “We’re going to have to say to young people – we’ll guarantee you a job in the voluntary sector, public sector or private sector.”