One in five young adults in Britain is unemployed, more than twice the rate for the workforce as a whole. And (temporarily, I hope) I am one of them. Yet I am convinced there has never been a better time to be young. The world is bursting with opportunity; every day, new inventions answer questions we had never thought to ask.
It’s time to tackle youth unemployment in that spirit; as Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Generation Y should stop asking “why me?” and start asking “why not?”
First, we must adopt the right mindset: positive in outlook and global in ambition. For optimism stems, not from denying change, but from recognizing the possibilities it presents. The job-for-life has gone – but so has the tedium of career monogamy. International competition has intensified – but also opened up new opportunities abroad.
Woolworths, Borders and Comet won’t be hiring again – but if Amazon brought them down, simultaneously it is enabling sole traders and aspiring authors to reach a wider audience than ever before.
So let’s forget misplaced nostalgia and address the heart of the problem. Youth unemployment has been rising for a decade; the financial crisis can’t take all the blame, but it can teach us to challenge easy assumptions. “Education is getting better” – but by indiscriminately awarding top grades, aren’t exam boards just aping credit ratings agencies?
“Everyone must go to university” – but since housing crashed when supply exceeded demand, are we surprised the same happened with graduates?
“Studying is always a good investment” – yet if excessive leverage can bring down banks and even governments, should students continue amassing record debts with only wishful thinking as collateral?
Education reform should be a priority. At university level, online courses potentially enable students to better align their programme with their interests and circumstances. They provide welcome competition to established institutions; let’s support them. A “DIY” approach to study is both increasingly possible and often necessary; indeed, many of the best coders are self-taught. We should sponsor entrepreneurship as PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, has done with his “20 Under 20” initiative, encouraging smart youngsters to believe in themselves and not to fear failure. And we should drop the snobbery; real-world experience such as travel or volunteering can yield greater benefits than the narrow, rigid and costly undergraduate degree to which we mistakenly still attach totemic significance.
The school curriculum, too, needs to offer courses with real business value to help school leavers find work. It is hardly “dumbing down” if it engages pupils and better equips them for adulthood. Employers have a far greater role to play. They now expect to train and re-train people continuously – there were no Android developers 10 years ago – so why not start younger? Instead of complaining that new hires arrive ill-prepared, companies should connect with them earlier by providing mentors and apprenticeships, building on the concept of the “talent incubator”. It will improve their business and give young people a sense of responsibility and purpose – not to mention more routes into the workplace.
Third, let’s encourage mentoring more widely. A few years ago I worked with a Prince’s Trust pilot programme which stationed mentors in some of the country’s most deprived areas. We reached out to young people who often had no one else to help them write a CV, apply for training or prepare for an interview. I saw how reassurance and motivation can do wonders for their mindset and morale, and hence their employability. Companies, community groups, Service veterans, and individual volunteers (that’s you and me) should all get involved. For underprivileged youngsters in particular, a good mentor represents both an anchor and a sail.
Fourth, we should focus our energies where the problem is most acute, in the communities where the rising tide that typically “lifts all boats” merely hides the wrecks. No one is more desperate than children of workless families: without someone to look up to, their odds of finding gainful employment are far worse than four-in-five. Where we can reform the benefits system to further incentivize work, where we can more constructively help people re-train, we should do so – but it requires human input too. We who have been fortunate – good job, good education, loving family – should return the favour. It is not enough to say, “I pay my taxes”.
Civic society cannot flourish on gold alone; it needs love. An introduction, a reference, a receptive ear: it needn’t take much to give someone a leg up in life. It has become contentious to say, “we are in it together”. But we are certainly stronger together.
Finally, we should remove barriers to job creation. Employers’ National Insurance increases the cost of employing someone; if we want to boost employment, there mustbe smarter ways to raise revenue than by taxing jobs. We should also look again at well-intentioned labour laws that protect incumbent workers but often hinder businesses from responding to change and hiring new talent. It is not clear that this makes staff any safer – not at General Motors, Hostess Brands or Scandinavian Airlines – but it does help to explain why joblessness remains highest among the young.
Youth unemployment has deep roots. Combating it requires us to challenge conventional wisdom: by removing, where possible, disincentives to hire and to work; by reforming schools and universities; by ramping up apprenticeships and mentoring. Teachers and parents, business leaders and policy makers all have a crucial part to play. It will not be easy; the march of progress – “creative destruction”, in Schumpeter’s phrase – is not without its casualties. Yet creativity is what we youngsters do best. Our fresh, radical and positive minds must seize the initiative, continually re-imagining the future amid the whirlwind of the present. We need leaders. There’s a job for the young, right away.
Courtney from Study Moose
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