British youth: a generation living without predictability or security

OECD warns that youth joblessness is Britain’s biggest challenge


Social researchers already know British youth in search of work by an acronym: the precariat. It is a social class “formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security”.

Depending on the analysis and the political perspective — and both vary wildly in the partisan world of British politics — their numbers far exceed the 1.4 million young people currently without work, in college or in training.

For the poorly educated the situation is grim. Last week the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development warned that they are the UK’s biggest challenge: “The crisis has amplified the value of a good education,” said one of the organisation’s officials, Andreas Schleicher.

For those today aged from 15 to 29, the OECD estimates that they will on average spend 2.3 years without a job during their working lives, compared with the 1.1 years likely in The Netherlands, the 1.3 years expected in Switzerland and the 1.7 years in Germany.

The difficulties are illustrated by a blind survey carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation late last year. It lodged applications for low-paid, unskilled work in a variety of jobs in England and Wales. The one positive finding was that employers were not barring candidates simply because they come from undesirable estates or postcodes, but it was the only glimmer in an otherwise bleak picture.

Intense competition for jobs
More than two-thirds of applicants had no response whatsoever. Only one in four jobs were full-time and during the day. Just over half were minimum wage, while applications sent within three days of an advertisement were three times more likely to get a response than those that came later.

“Intense competition meant that some employers advertise vacancies online and close them as soon as they have sufficient applicants to select from,” said the foundation.

“Not all job-seekers were aware how speedily they need to respond to vacancies, and those without internet access at home were at a disadvantage. Young people have to apply quickly and consistently to stand any chance,” it said.

The situation looks even bleaker when the issue of colour is considered: 47 per cent of black people aged between 16 and 24 are out of work, compared with 29 per cent of those with an Asian ethnicity, but contrasting with 20 per cent of their white counterparts.

Immigration has played its part, regardless of the denials offered by some, with employers preferring eastern Europeans, seeing them as more biddable, more hard-working and less demanding than their British counterparts.

Poor numeracy and literacy
However, employers often complain bitterly about the quality of candidates coming before them. The candidates often display poor numeracy and literacy, even if they have qualifications, and sometimes a poor work ethic.

Under pressure, the Conservatives/ Liberal Democrats coalition displayed a double-edged sword — offering apprenticeships and voluntary work experience and a £2,275 lump sum to employers for taking one of them on but sanctions for those young people who refused to sign up.

However, the efforts became reputationally catastrophic for some of the firms that got involved, since they were accused of exploiting the desperate by offering unpaid, menial work that offered few tangible benefits. Former Marks and Spencer chief Stuart Rose, who began life stacking shelves and sweeping floors, was among leading businessmen who urged employers to stand up to the campaign waged against them, but many thought the battle not worthwhile.

Opinion is divided bitterly about the success or otherwise of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s decision to bring private companies on board to find work for candidates and paying them only if they succeed in doing so.

The plan has worked better for younger people than it has for the older unemployed or those on incapacity benefits — the private contractors are just a little behind in their targets for under-25s but lagging seriously in every other category.

Last week, however, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne appeared to move away from Duncan Smith’s ideas, preferring to demand more from job-centre staff — proposing much greater contact between them and under-25s in search of work.

For graduates the situation is better but still challenging: 50 are applying for each vacancy, according to industry research published last weekend — though the number of jobs available is at its highest for five years. Four hundred thousand graduates left college last year.

Men more likely to be unemployed
Male graduates were more likely to be unemployed than women graduates six months after graduation, though the men who got jobs were better paid. Dental and medical graduates were all employed, while more than one in 10 with creative arts degrees were not. More surprisingly, one in seven of those who had studied computer science were still without work.

However, competition often requires graduates to accept posts below their qualifications – or below their expectations — while more than a third of the posts available are in the southeast of England, as a result of its economic dominance. Too often, people do not want to move to take up work.