Young bear brunt of joblessness

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Welfare to Work programmes and college expansion alone will not improve job prospects for young people in the UK, economists warn.

Assessment of youth employment trends by two senior associates of the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance concludes only a drop in total unemployment will make it easier for the young to get jobs.

Professors David Blanchflower and Richard Freeman warn that the situation for young people - particularly men - is worse in the UK than in most other states in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Writing in the CEP journal, CentrePiece, Blanchflower and Freeman debunk the myths surrounding youth unemployment, saying that traditionally-held causes are wrong and the solutions they inspire do not work, so job prospects of the young continue to worsen.

They argue that young people are the most marginalised workers in the economy - last in and first out of jobs.

Across the OECD, a 1 per cent rise in overall unemployment leads to a significantly larger drop in employment - 1.13 per cent - for the young.

The effect is even more marked in the UK - every 1 per cent rise in total unemployment leads to a 1.8 per cent drop in jobs for young people, and a huge 2.4 per cent fall for young men. The result is a growing range of social problems including rising suicide rates and crime.

"Unless overall rates of unemployment are reduced, there is little likelihood of an improvement in the job prospects for young people," the professors conclude.

"The most likely cause of youth unemployment is the high overall rate of unemployment: unless that is reduced, which may require faster economic growth than most countries seem willing to accept, the position of youths in the job market is unlikely to change in the near future."

Their controversial message chimes in with that of Peter Robinson, also of the CEP, who argued in his paper Literacy, Numeracy and Economic Performance last month that tackling child poverty would be a more effective way of raising standards in schools than initiatives like league tables, hit squads and action zones.

The professors say youth unemployment has traditionally been blamed on a lack of qualifications among young people, baby booms which work through to produce a glut of young workers, or a lack of flexibility among job-seekers.

But today's students are more highly-qualified than ever, the baby boom which caused so many problems in the 1970s and early 1980s is long over, and young workers are more flexible and demand lower wages than older staff. Sectors such as retail and catering which traditionally employ young people are growing.

Since none of these reasons holds water, solutions such as wage subsidies, training programmes and encouraging students to stay on at college are unlikely to work, the authors argue.

But that does not mean the Government should not continue to expand education and training, or that its flagship Welfare to Work programme is pointless. Professor Blanchflower told The TES the UK's growth in education lagged far behind its competitors.

"The UK prides itself on having 17-year-olds in employment. I think that's really bad. Everywhere else they are more likely to be in training," he said.

But training initiatives had to meet local needs - and, crucially, offer jobs at the end.

Large-scale "blunderbuss" programmes like the Youth Training Scheme of the 1980s had proved an expensive failure.

"We must focus on local need, let local firms decide what needs there are. Central government is really bad at that kind of activity," he concluded.

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