Youth unemployment: The angry millions

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Figures out tomorrow are expected to confirm the worst youth unemployment figures for nearly 20 years. But it's the lack of hope, as much as the lack of jobs, that is dangerous

In Japan they call them freeters, an amalgamation of "freelance" and the German word for workers arbeiter. The Tunisians opt for hittistes, a slang Arabic phrase which roughly translates as people who lean against walls. In Britain we prefer NEETs, the term we use to describe the depressingly swelling ranks of our young who are not in education, employment or training.

But whatever you call them and wherever you are, the youth unemployment time bomb is ticking and in Britain there are few signs of things getting better.

Tomorrow the Office for National Statistics (ONS) will release the latest employment figures from the past three months, with most analysts expecting the number of under-24s out of work to pass the one million mark for the first time since the early 1990s.

If that ceiling is breached, it will be a hugely significant and psychologically damaging moment for Britain. Political parties will inevitably point the finger of blame at each other, but whatever the cause of our NEET crisis there is little dispute that our ongoing failure to harness the energy of the younger generations is eating away at the foundations of all our own futures.

As Paul Brown, director of communications at the youth charity The Prince's Trust, put it earlier this summer: "Youth unemployment is like a dripping tap, costing tens of millions of pounds a week through benefits and lost productivity. And, just like a dripping tap, if we don't do something to fix it, it's likely to get much worse."

According to the figures covering May to July this year, unemployment among under-24s officially stood at 973,000, but the growing belief among some economists is that over the past three months – with scores of new graduates flooding into the job market over the summer – the figures might have risen by as much as 90,000 taking them into seven figures for the first time since 1993. For the pessimists it heralds a return to two decades ago when the young were hit disproportionately hard and suffered for years afterwards.

"The 1980s recession was a generational disaster and there is a major risk of it happening all over again," says Richard Exell, a labour market expert at the Trades Union Congress. "Whatever interpretation economists might have, as far as ordinary people are concerned we are already in a double dip recession and young people are clearly one of the groups bearing the brunt of it."

The effects of long-term unemployment are often depressingly long lasting. The TUC's own research has shown that those who were out of work for more than a year during the 1980s were more likely to struggle during the current economic crisis and overall tended to earn less than those who got through the decade economically unscathed.

According to the ONS, the proportion of young people out of work is edging ever closer to 20 per cent, prompting headlines this year warning that one in five under -24s are out of work. But the reality is a little more subtle.

"I wouldn't for one moment want to give the impression that we haven't got economic difficulties or that it is easy for young people to find a job because it isn't," says Simon Briscoe, a former statistics editor at the Financial Times. "But I do think that when we hear people say one in five young people are unemployed it is terribly misleading."

That's partly down to the way the ONS publishes its statistics. The figures they release give youth unemployment as a percentage of the economically active but excludes the "inactive" – those in education. As the number of young seeking further education increases, the pool of potentially unemployed reduces but proportionately the number of unemployed (within that pool) increases. If you include those in education, the actual unemployment figure is closer to one in eight, rather than one in five, a number that is comparable to older age groups.

Statisticians like Mr Briscoe prefer to look at the bigger picture – but there is even less room for optimism there. "Whether the unemployed number hits one million or not is irrelevant really from a statistician's point of view," he says. "It's simply a number on a given day. What's important is the overall trend which has shown youth unemployment steadily rising over the past six or seven years. That's the really scary statistic. It's time we had some clear thinking and some good policy decision to tackle this overall rise."

The young are naturally resilient and have fewer dependents than older generations. So does temporary high unemployment even matter? Can they bounce back? To a degree. But beyond the long-term implications of being temporarily out of work one only needs to look south and east of the Mediterranean to see what the end result of endemic youth unemployment can be.

The revolutions that have swept the region were largely led by shabaab – self-identified youth movements that were fed up with their lack of prospects in an area of the world where unemployment for their age group rests at 24 per cent, according to the International Labour Organisation. Their anger, of course, was exacerbated by the corrupt and despotic rule of their leaders. But even in Spain and Greece, which have some of Europe's highest youth unemployment rates, protests regularly break out and violence is never far away.

David Cameron has insisted the summer riots had nothing to do with poverty. But numerous statistical analyses of the rioters have shown deprivation and a lack of hope played a key role. According to one analysis, 41 per cent of suspects lived in areas in the bottom 10 per cent of England in terms of deprivation.

Kevin Green, chief executive of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, says the Government could be more pro-active at alleviating the crisis. "It doesn't have to all be about spending your way out," he says. "There are plenty of little steps you could take."

His organisation, for example, has lobbied for small and medium business to be given a two-year National Insurance tax breaks if they hire an under 24-year-old. "It would encourage employers to take a risk and hire someone younger and would cost significantly less than having them on benefits," he says.

Doing nothing is not an option. You only have to look at Tottenham, Hackney, Croydon and Manchester to see the alternative.

Voices of a lost generation

Natasha Lawrence, 23, Chichester, Unemployed graduate

When I graduated in July with a 2:1 in English I was hopeful of finding work, but the Government have cut so many public sector jobs and everybody's worried about money, so there's less jobs and much more competition. Internships mean only those who can afford to forego a salary can get ahead, which is a major attack on equality.

Tobi Ladejobi, 23, Streatham, Unemployed graduate

I graduated three months ago and have been searching everywhere for jobs ever since. I worked so hard on my internship at EMI, all for nothing because there was no job at the end. It was heartbreaking. But maybe there never was going to be a job. Companies just want intern after intern on an assembly line, so they don't have to pay a penny.

Sarah Wilson, 23, Peckham, Unemployed, with A-levels

There have been days in the past few months when I've applied for 20 jobs only to hear back from three, and most of them just politely say no. It's impossible to know what employers are after – I feel like I've tried everything. .

Philip Javens, 23, Petersfield, Unemployed graduate

Our generation was given a message that there would be a world of opportunities waiting for us after university – but what are these opportunities? Mostly just internships that don't pay for the basics of living. It's a tough time to be young.

Tenneta Morris, 23, Harlesden, Unemployed, with BTECs

I have two young children to support and we're struggling just to get by. I want to work, I have BTEC qualifications and I'm not fussy. But at the moment I'm applying for 10 jobs a week and getting nowhere. It's hard to tell what employers want.

Alfie Hunter, 19, Borehamwood, Unemployed, with A-levels

It's so important to have a full-time job – something secure and permanent and hopefully fulfilling. But this generation are denied that. And the Government have made access to university even harder by raising fees.

Ruth Johnston, 22, New Malden, Unemployed graduate

I've been to university but I don't automatically assume that entitles me to a job – but I do think I deserve one on my own merits. The problem is that employers aren't willing to give you those opportunities to show what you can do. With the economy like it is, if companies can get away with not paying young people, they will.

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