"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” is the opening line of Charles Dickens’s novel A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859. While the words were written over 150 years ago, I cannot think of a better phrase to encapsulate the situation facing young people in London and the rest of the UK today.
On the one hand, the glass half full version points to some great opportunities. The UK is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, with world-class finance, tech and creative sectors. The technological revolution enables young people to set up a business from their bedroom.
On the other hand, when I speak to young people on visits to schools or Prince’s Trust centres, their insecurities about the present and anxieties about the future are palpable. Their biggest challenges invariably include finding a job and the rising cost of living.
The concerns felt by young people come across loud and clear in the Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index published today. Worryingly the survey shows that their confidence and happiness are at their lowest levels since the index started in 2009 (with young Londoners the most pessimistic of any region). More than a quarter of young people aged 16-25 said they don’t feel in control of their lives and 16 per cent thought their life would amount to nothing no matter how hard they try.
The despondency spreads to employment prospects. The Index found that 36 per cent of young people don’t feel in control of their job prospects and half say that the pressures of getting a job are greater than a year ago. Linked to job anxieties are rising living costs, with 37 per cent of young people who feel out of control of their lives saying they are worried that their living costs are going up faster than their wages or salary.
The results of the survey should make us all sit up and take note. The number of young people in the UK not in education, training or employment (NEETs), despite a recent reduction, remains too high, at 850,000. In London around 100,000 young people are unemployed, equating to 19 per cent of 16-24 year olds, significantly higher than the national average. In general terms, young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults.
The UK is not alone in facing these problems. Youth unemployment is over 50 per cent in some countries, such as South Africa, and over 40 per cent in developed nations like Greece and Spain. In total, there are over 70m young people unemployed across the world. The International Labour Organisation has warned of a “scarred generation” facing high unemployment and precarious employment.
An epidemic of anxiety and insecurity among young people should matter to business. First, young people are the current and future customers, as well as employees, of British businesses. Our companies should all be in the “future business”, thinking about the aspirations and concerns of the young.
Also young people are a bellwether for overall confidence in the economy. If they are pessimistic, the economy is facing a bleak future. Finally, business may well have to deal with the social consequences of the jobs malaise, such as mental health issues or the riots that occurred in the UK in the summer of 2011.
Business, therefore, cannot close its eyes to the anxieties of the young. They need to address them by working with charities like the Trust, to nurture young talent and build the next generation of their workforce. At the same time, if we get it right, more young people can capitalise on the enormous opportunities available today.
If we harness their energies, they can do great things for our economy and society. A strong Britain post-Brexit will be built on the talents and energies of all our young people.