Meet the UK’s lost generation

(First published on Equal Times)
Translations: Español | Francais 

Finn Richardson is a near perfect embodiment of Britain’s growing youth unemployment crisis. At 19 years old he finds himself among 993,000 of his peers on the unemployment scrapheap, yet his determination to find work runs contrary to popular media portrayals of sedentary youngsters scrounging off the welfare state. 

Finn Richardson with unemployed friend Sarah, at Rathbone
“I’ve been looking for work for almost two years,” he protests in a soft yet indignant voice, “I’ve handed out over 200 CVs and been to a few interviews but I don’t get any feedback and I’ve not really got anywhere with them.”

Finn has also attended training sessions at a youth charity near his home in Old Trafford, in the north of England. Rathbone offers support to young people across Britain – often with few qualifications - to help them become more employable in a difficult labour market. There is no doubt that Finn wants to work, his supervisor informs me. The problem is that demand for his services is non-existent. 

Since the financial crisis in 2008, youth unemployment has more than doubled in Britain. Last month, as Chancellor George Osbourne announced his budget for 2013, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed the disproportionate extent to which austerity has hit the young. 21.2% of the country’s youth (between 16 and 24) are out of work, leaving Britain with the third highest levels of youth unemployment in the OECD, behind Spain and Greece. The figure rose by 48,000 in the three months leading up to the budget, meaning that young people now account for around 40% of the total unemployment figure - 2.5 million. 

At a time of steep cuts in public spending and stagnating private sector growth, few employers are willing to take on teenagers like Finn, who left school without a qualification in maths. He is convinced he is being discriminated against because of his age, and suggests an ability to work efficiently should be the main criterion for selection: “Some people get jobs with no experience at all, just because they’re older or just because they’re good at interviews and good at talking. I think they should give people a trial instead of an interview.”

Part of the problem is that the low skilled jobs Finn is applying for are increasingly being taken by university graduates. Louise Thomasson recently graduated with a first class honours degree in English literature from Bolton University. She started looking for entry level positions in marketing six months before graduating, but despite numerous interviews has so far been unsuccessful. “It’s very frustrating”, she says, “It’s not enough to come out with a degree anymore you need a lot of experience to back it up.” 

Consequently Louise has retained her part time role as a retail assistant - a job she has held since she was 16. She claims her situation is not uncommon. “When I think about my partner, he graduated two years ago and went straight into an IT position, but the majority of his friends are still looking for work and some of them are still working in supermarkets and places that had no relevance to their degree whatsoever.” 

The government’s response to the problem has not been without incident. Last year a ‘workfare’ scheme was launched whereby young people who have been unemployed for long periods are given a choice between working for free or sacrificing their benefit payments. Then in February the Court of Appeals ruled the schemes were unlawful and that thousands of young people could be entitled to compensation as they had not been provided with clear information about what they entailed. In response the government passed a controversial emergency bill to amend the rules and apply them retroactively in order to avoid paying out millions of pounds to young people whose benefits had been cut. 

Finn has just been informed by his job centre that if he hasn’t found work by May, he will be asked to do mandatory work. Like many others in his situation, he doesn’t think it’s fair. “I feel that if they send you on a work programme I think you should get paid what you would if you’re in the job,” he argues, “Even if it’s just temporary you should get paid for the amount of work you’re doing.”

Peter Fletcher, director of Rathbone, suggests the government isn’t focusing enough on providing more opportunities for young people. “The government has been doing a lot to put young people on training schemes, to subsidise work and so on, but all that effort is on the supply side”, he says, “The issue is a lack of demand in the economy. Employers are not taking on young people because they haven’t got demand for their services.”

Fletcher believes the coalition should be looking to history in order to create more opportunities for the young. "We need to do something similar to the youth training schemes in the 1980s which is basically a job creation scheme for young people. The key is they need to last at least a year so they have sufficient time to gain skills and they are actually paid a wage so they retain their dignity.”

In nearby Salford, Labour MP and campaigner for young worker’s rights, Hazel Blears, says thousands of her young constituents are also struggling to find work. Blears recently introduced a bill in parliament in an attempt to outlaw the advertising of unpaid internships and end the exploitation of young workers. She argues that one solution could be to make already existing apprenticeships more accessible to young people from poorer backgrounds who currently can’t afford to do them. “There has been an expansion of apprenticeships which is very welcome, but the basic rates are £2.60 and hour. Who can afford to do that?” she asks.

Yet the government’s commitment to austerity combined with poor growth projections for the years ahead leave young Britons with little hope of any significant improvement in the short term. Many are painfully aware they pertain to a “lost generation”, the first since the Second World War expected to be poorer than their parents. Had he been born at a different time, it is possible Finn might have dreamed of success, wealth and the pursuit of a better life for his family. When asked where he hopes to be in 10 years’ time, however, his answer is rather less ambitious. 

“I just hope I’ve got a job that I enjoy in customer service work or retail and hopefully I won’t be unemployed anymore.”