When Lord Sacks rose from the red benches of the Upper Chamber to initiate a debate on “Business and Society” last month, he honed in on the problem of youth unemployment. He asked whether we were “condemning a significant proportion of young people to a future in which they will never find work”.
Certainly the bare statistics make for dismal reading. In the UK, the unemployment rate is 18.6 per cent amongst 18-24 year olds, translating to almost one million young people out of work.
In other parts of Europe, such as Spain and Greece, it hovers around the 50 per cent mark.
These statistics moved German Chancellor Angela Merkel to identify youth unemployment recently as “perhaps the most pressing European problem”, a significant remark considering the number of challenges facing leaders.
The problem has infected every country, across all continents.
The region with the highest youth unemployment rate is North Africa at almost 30 per cent.
The Middle East suffers from debilitating unemployment, and if anything the Arab spring has exacerbated this problem, making economic reform a distant possibility.
The economic malaise in these countries has profound consequences. Academics have charted a link between the unemployment rate amongst young men and social instability.
In the UK, there is much talk of youths not in employment, education or training (NEETs). Whilst every region is affected, the parts of the country where the problem is most acute are London and the North East.
We know that when people don’t work there is an economic cost (to the welfare state) but also a societal cost caused by the despair and demoralisation from prolonged spells out of work. This can lead to social problems such as excessive drinking, drug-taking and violence — both in the domestic sense and publicly on the streets. Politicians are seriously worried about the jobless rates amongst young people.
Despite the gloomy terrain, the statistics are not quite as bad as they seem. One-third of the million or so unemployed are thought to be full-time students looking for work and the latest figures reported a drop of 20,000 in youth unemployment.
Some young people are pursuing their own business ideas, due to a dearth of opportunities in the market. The growth of the internet lies at the heart of this. The barriers to entry in starting a business have been lowered. Some believe that the economic downturn may spark a new wave of creativity and enterprise in the UK.
But for most young people finding a job, often unskilled, is the goal.
Apprenticeships are fast becoming a lynchpin of the economic recovery. It is estimated that 500,000 people started an apprenticeship between 2011 and 2012. There are lessons we can learn from Germany which has a sophisticated vocational apprenticeship programme and as a result, a slim youth unemployment rate of 7.6 per cent. As many as two-thirds of young Germans complete apprenticeships, which helps to sustain successful industries like manufacturing.
As a community, we are affected by youth unemployment — but we have an excellent infrastructure to help those in need.
Margaret Thatcher famously admired our community’s attitude to hard work, balanced against support for those who faced difficulties. She asserted that in her 33 years as MP for Finchley: “I never had a Jew come in poverty and desperation to one of my constituency surgeries. They had always been looked after by their own community.”
As well as taking pride in this, we can also take pride in Israel’s record on employing its young, where youth unemployment decreased in 2012.
Yet this is not the moment to be communally self-satisfied. Times are tough and youth unemployment affects everyone.
A survey suggested that almost half of 18-24 year olds in the UK experienced food poverty in the past year. This is a stain on our collective conscience. It’s a measure of the challenge facing us all; not only do we need to help young people find jobs, but basic food as well.