Deborah Orr: The Eighties recession is still haunting today's young

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The Independent Online

When Alistair Darling spoke yesterday of avoiding the mistakes of the past, when "a whole generation was condemned to a future on the scrapheap", he certainly brought the memories flooding back. God, it was grim to be a young adult in the recession of the early Eighties, when youth unemployment soared and a place on a YTS (Youth Training Scheme) was something to be ardently coveted.

Back then, many commentators saw the various schemes that were launched to provide work or training for school-leavers as cynical ploys to keep the unemployment figures as low as possible. They were right, of course.

My brother got on a YTS when he left school, supposedly as an entree to his training as a panel-beater. But when the Government stopped paying for his place, he was shown the door. I went for the EAS, or Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which paid you more than the dole and allowed you grandly to describe yourself as self-employed. (That meant that you weren't counted as out-of-work.) When it ran out after a year, you couldn't sign on again, and you clambered on the coach to London, where there was some work, or, presumably, you starved.

Some of the exploitation that young people suffered under these schemes was horrific, because they turned up for experience at companies which weren't really geared up to offering any structured training. I'm haunted by one of the tragic consequences, which involved a boy in his teens being told to get inside a soap-making machine to clean it, only to be maimed when the machine, which had blades fitted to its floor, was then switched on.

I've no doubt that Mr Darling is not cynical about youth unemployment. When he says that helping the unemployed is "morally the right thing to do", as well as "economically essential", he is speaking from the heart. But the brief details he gave of the sort of work the Government would be lavishing funds on providing for young people did not seem inspiring.

He says that under-25s who have been out of work for a year or more will be guaranteed a job offer or a training place. Although he speaks airily of training for industries with "strong future demand", the reality seems to be assistance with funding for local authorities who need potholes filled, or "traineeships in social care". Yet these are both sectors that were notorious for offering derisory wages, even during the boom. And social care, particularly, is not work that can be successfully undertaken by the reluctant.

It's good, of course, that Mr Darling has pledged to fund more sixth-form and further education places, since demand for these always rises in recessions. But the Government has been planning to introduce compulsory education for under-18s anyway. That pre-recession strategy aimed to educate young people so that they could take part in the high-skills economy.

Yesterday was a sober reminder, however, that some households with "low skills" have now been languishing in multi-generational unemployment for decades. One understood that this recession was going to be serious. But yesterday's announcements on youth unemployment were a reminder that some of the worst problems created by the recession of the Eighties have not been cleared up in time for this one. Grim indeed.

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