In search of the lost generation

Youth unemployment is back in the news. But who is this recession really hitting hardest? Has it merely exposed deeper problems we’ve been ignoring for years?

By Fran Abrams.

Above: trainee chefs—but will the recession permanently damage young people’s prospects?

The class of 1979 at Marple Hall County High School in Stockport, in my recollection at least, divided neatly into two groups. By and large, those of us whose parents owned their own homes went on into the sixth form; the ones who lived in council housing mostly left to start work. Jobs seemed easy to come by. Nicky, the most academic of the latter bunch, did an electrical apprenticeship. Colin, bright and personable, trained as a chef; Danno as a painter and decorator. As the rest of us took A-levels and went off to college and university, news of our old friends seeped through. Every time I went home another former classmate had hit the dole queue. The last time I saw Nicky, in the mid-1980s, he was sitting in the corner of our local pub, overweight, out of work and, I was told, filling his days with drugs.

I’ve thought about my schoolmates recently as youth unemployment has hit the headlines once more, and the clichéd phrase “a lost generation”—used in the 1980s and briefly in the early 1990s—has been pressed into service again. Nearly 1m 16-24 year olds are now “Neets”: not in education, employment or training­. The figure has risen 14 per cent on the same quarter in 2008, leading to concern that a whole cohort of young people will suffer. But the real picture is a complicated one, in which some groups will be hit less hard than others and some may even prosper despite difficult circumstances.

Unemployment is rarely a good thing. Long periods out of work decrease attachment to the labour market; skills go rusty and the jobless are treated with suspicion by employers. But the case for a “lost generation” rests on a theory that unemployment, especially at the start of a working life, has effects that can last for years or even decades­—even for those who do find jobs. This “scarring” theory (see box, p58) was first promoted in the early 1980s by American academic David Ellwood. One of its leading proponents is economist David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, and one of the few experts who predicted this recession. He feels no need to pull his punches: “It does seem like a national crisis and a lost generation… it’s a big problem for society because young unmarried men who are unemployed commit crime. The public’s not going to be really happy with rising property crime; rising street crime. The cost of doing nothing looks very serious.” … Read More>>

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