‘This is a waste of youthful potential’

Youth unemployment is rising and causing hardship. So why were there so few on Saturday’s ‘Youth Fight for Jobs’ demo?

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

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Among the 13 bills put forward by New Labour in the Queen’s Speech earlier this month was a pledge to ease the impact of the recession on the young. With growing fears of youth unemployment rising above one million in the new year, prime minister Gordon Brown used the ceremonious occasion to announce new measures to combat the problem.

The package, estimated to be worth £200million, included a range of initiatives to push young people back into education and employment, such as job and training guarantees for 18- to 24-year-olds and ‘high quality’ internships for graduates out of work for more than six months (1).

Judging from a national demonstration in central London on Saturday, organised by Youth Fight for Jobs, Brown is not the only one concerned about what has been labelled ‘the youth unemployment timebomb’. Youth Fight for Jobs was founded in January 2009, and according to its national organiser, Sean Figg, the aim is to ‘build a mass movement of young people… against the jobs massacre, against young people being thrown on the scrap heap’.

Saturday’s march started at the University of London Union, which has over 130,000 members – yet only a few hundred people attended. Some were neither young nor students, but had come to show support. Because of the lower than anticipated turnout, when the march started, piles of banners with slogans such as ‘For real jobs’ and ‘For free education’ were left behind.

Banners at Saturday’s protest

Still, it was clear that those who did join the march harboured serious concerns about being part of a ‘lost generation’ of unemployed young people. Kay, a student from Walthamstow in north-east London, told me: ‘It’s a dreadful waste of our potential. We’re going to come out of universities with skills, but have nowhere to use them. And we’ll have huge debts with no way of paying them off.’

This was the experience of many of the young protesters. One student, who is nearing the end of a five-year university degree, told me he is £32,000 in debt and has found that even the casual part-time work he used to do back home in Essex is drying up.

Employment prospects for non-students are dire, too. Eighteen-year-old Stephen said he does not want to go to university, but has been looking for unskilled work for a year with no luck. He told me he joined the march because he doesn’t know what else to do, but, he said, ‘I’m not convinced it will make any difference’. He said he was put off by the fact that the organisers were not focusing solely on marching for jobs but instead were using the occasion to protest against everything from the war in Afghanistan to the rise of the British National Party.

But apart from the mélange of messages, there was one red thread that ran through this protest: the state was invoked as the problem-solver to all our recession-caused woes. Industries going out of business should be nationalised in order to save jobs. The solution to high youth unemployment rates is state-provided education, skills training or apprenticeships, along with expanded welfare benefits. As the recession makes us more vulnerable, the logic went, the greater the safety net provided by the state should become.

In other words, the demands of the Youth Fight for Jobs protesters were not that dissimilar to the government initiatives outlined in the Queen’s Speech. The demonstrators were demanding ‘real jobs’, but it proved impossible to get anyone to define ‘real jobs’.

Still, an Oxford student called Toby was positive that demands for expanded employment will grow and that it will become an issue that galvanises young people to call for change. ‘There is a seething anger out there, but unfortunately this is being channelled into different areas, including the far right. We need to give political leadership.’ As we neared Trafalgar Square, Toby told me that ‘there is no other national demonstration like this about youth jobs or against fees. Even the National Union of Students has given up.’

Protesters demand ‘real jobs’

This ‘build the movement and the supporters will come’ attitude pervaded the demonstration. As things get worse, the argument went, and the real impact of the debts students are facing becomes apparent, people will no longer tolerate the fact that while the bankers are getting bailed out young people are being abandoned in their hour of need. Others pointed out that the numbers marching will only grow after the next General Election. Or when top-up fees are introduced. Or, if the Conservatives win the election, after the first Tory budget is announced. One demonstrator explained that, after the election, the true scale of cuts will become apparent, ‘and people will then realise the true impact the recession will have on their lives and come and join us’.

But how bad does it need to get for unemployment to become an issue that galvanises people? After all, earlier this month, youth unemployment in the UK reached an all-time high of 19.8 per cent (2). In truth, the lack of angry young people on the streets of Britain – right now – demonstrates the extent to which unemployment has been depoliticised as an issue and just how fundamentally employment relations have changed.

Since the onset of the recession there has emerged an unprecedented complicity between employers and employees, where employees are expected to ‘share the pain’ of company setbacks. Many have agreed to make sacrifices such as working without pay for a month in order to keep their jobs in the long term and help companies stay afloat (see Why unemployment is no longer a political issue, by Brendan O’Neill). Even the young protesters on Saturday argued for government investment in training people so they can acquire basic skills. Where were the calls for challenging, dynamic and exciting jobs and opportunities that truly allow the young to ‘realise their potential’?

Youth Fight for Jobs are right to protest against the ‘dreadful waste of potential’ as youth unemployment increases. However, their concern that they will be ‘thrown on the scrapheap’ sounds like they regard themselves as passively travelling on a conveyor belt towards a future of unemployment which the government must step in to halt. Rather than looking to the state to reallocate funds from a shrinking budget in order to create (often unproductive) jobs and skills-based training courses, young people worried about their futures would be far better off emphasising the demand made on Saturday for ‘a massive public programme of house building, renovation and infrastructure projects’ instead. Such a project has some vision, and would create real work.

Patrick Hayes is volunteer co-ordinator for the education charity WORLDwrite and one of the organisers of the Battle of Ideas festival.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill looked at why unemployment is no longer a political issue. Patrick Hayes reported on the Visteon factory occupation. Rob Lyons revealed the truth about the unemployment stats. Neil Davenport wondered why there are so many wannabe workers. Or read more at spiked issues British politics and Economy.

(1) Queen’s speech: Gordon Brown’s bid to defuse youth unemployment timebomb, Guardian, 19 November 2009

(2) Youth unemployment hits record high, Independent, 11 November 2009

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Topics Politics


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