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Glimmers of hope for the 'lost' generation

The "lost generation" is a haunting term. It is used by Scottish economist David Bell of the young unemployed in Scotland, the kids who have no future, for whom early joblessness spells a lifetime of poverty and depression. Professor Bell writes movingly about the "scarring" effects of youth unemployment, the whole families who will never recover, and the generations who will follow them (p37).

Over a quarter of 16-19 year olds in this country are unemployed - more than three times the adult rate, he points out, and 2.5 times the rate of their peers in Germany. The reason, he believes, is the difference in vocational education. While Scotland has pursued academic success above all else, Germany has a long and respected tradition of vocational education for those who want it, and employers, technical colleges and schools work together to set youngsters on the road to work.

The Scottish situation looks bleak by comparison. But there are glimmers of hope. While teachers and parents voice their scepticism about Curriculum for Excellence (p36), Iain McMillan, the director of CBI Scotland, believes it could mark an important step forward - because it's about developing various capabilities in young people.

One of the keys is partnerships, between schools and colleges and employers. Whether it's primary children working on computer games development with FE students at Reid Kerr College (p24), or secondary schools across the country working with local companies (p20), or young school leavers receiving support from voluntary organisations in their area (p26), the message is the same: catch them young, build up their confidence and give them the skills they can take to any employer - timekeeping, interpersonal skills, numeracy and literacy. Make them "employment ready", as McMillan puts it.

From the brightest kids to those from poor homes who "suddenly get what it's all about", the companies are there to catch them before they make career choices, and hold onto them so there's no employment gap when they leave university (p22). For others, it's not so easy, like the teenagers from Banff whose future looked bleak a year ago (p26); or young Danika from Bellshill who was unable to secure a college place or a job (p14) - but their future now looks bright. They found help through voluntary bodies and government programmes like 16+ Learning Choices (part of Curriculum for Excellence) and Get Ready for Work.

For them, the Government schemes appear to be working. Add to those the 25,000 new Modern Apprenticeships promised in the March Budget. The crucial thing, as Bell's co-researcher David Blanchflower says, is to keep young people off the streets, keep them in education or training: it's not a panacea, but it is, in a recession, an alternative to unemployment. And it could just stop them getting lost.

Gillian Macdonald, Editor.

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