Only bold structural reform can end scandal of UK youth unemployment

Lottie Dexter
BRITAIN has reached a crossroads. In the midst of global transformation and economic meltdown, we must decide how to survive this brave new world. We have to make the call; are we in or are we out?

Alas, unlike the government I am not talking about the hotly-debated EU referendum. Instead, I want action on something much more pressing; youth unemployment. The latest statistics, which will be released this morning, will likely show that the number of jobless 16-24 year olds continues to hover around the 1m mark – as it has for nearly four years. Unemployment among young adults is twice the rate for the overall workforce.

These statistics speak for themselves. Young people are our most potent natural resource and having so many going to waste is toxic for Britain’s long-term economic prosperity, as well being a stranglehold on society. Youth unemployment harms wellbeing, breaks families and sinks communities. And that’s not to mention the cost to the Exchequer; David Miliband’s landmark report on youth unemployment estimated that it cost more last year than the entire further education budget.

This is a blight on our society that will ruin our chances in the global economy for years to come. A recent Million Jobs/YouGov survey found that just 4 per cent of people thought Britain would have more influence in world affairs in ten years’ time. Youth unemployment was ranked the third most important issue facing the country, while coincidentally Europe came in seventh. People recognise that fresh faces and not grey hairs will get us going, and our youth must be leading not lagging.

We cannot afford to have 1m young people missing out. These young adults are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and friends. It is for the people that sit behind the statistics that, at 23 years old, I started the Million Jobs Campaign. I have travelled the depth and breadth of Great Britain, meeting the under 25s who are struggling to get on. I have spoken to their youth workers and the businesses that cannot afford to give them a shot. I have seen the devastation unemployment is reeking on my peers, and the great potential going to waste. Million Jobs speaks up for the young jobless and puts pressure on politicians to help them. By 2015 we want all political parties shouting about their plans to combat youth unemployment. We want them to break with the failed solutions of the past and to take a radical new approach to cracking this.

Reforms to schools, training and welfare are a good place to start and would make not working not an option. An injection of enterprise into education would mean that pupils have the information, experience and the skills to get the jobs they want. Those at risk of falling out of the system altogether should be matched and mentored into employment – and their benefits rerouted accordingly.

These bold structural changes should be combined with a raft of pro-enterprise measures, such as slashing the rules and regulations governing work experience. Along with tax incentives and a more flexible employment environment, this should ensure that our young people are not priced out of the jobs market but can make their way in the world.

After all, this is not a new phenomenon: youth unemployment has been dogging us for years. In 1997, New Labour’s electoral victory was fuelled by the hopes of youth. Despite grand promises to “attack” youth unemployment, after 13 years in government the number of jobless young adults had rocketed by 40 per cent. Various schemes had failed, wage subsidies created artificial employment and – ultimately – Britain’s young people were hung out to dry.

Since 2010, the coalition government has made headway and embarked on some ambitious reforms. The redefinition of the welfare state and the introduction of a number of pro-business policies – such as reforms to employment tribunals, National Insurance breaks for nearly half a million small firms, and startup loans – are all reasons to be hopeful. Yet while this is all good progress, we must not be naïve. It is nowhere near enough. Solving the youth employment Rubik’s cube requires a master plan, and a hell of a lot more gumption.

This is the only way to beat down the long grass for 1m young adults. By ushering in a new era of employment policy, the government would make way for our bright young sparks and get Britain back on her feet.

Lottie Dexter is director of the Million Jobs Campaign.