Scotland must act to prevent a youth unemployment crisis – Richard Leonard

The Covid-induced recession that is looming could hit young people harder than most and a lack of a job at that early age may have lasting consequences, writes Richard Leonard.

Government must invest in further education, training and jobs schemes, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Government must invest in further education, training and jobs schemes, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

As an undergraduate studying for a degree in economics and politics at the University of Stirling, I wrote my dissertation on an analysis of the Youth Opportunities Programme. Youth unemployment was raging and had risen substantially from the mid-1970s onwards. In fact, I recall it jumped from 33,000 across the UK in 1974 to 1.25 million by the time I was writing my scholarly treatise ten years later.

YOP was designed to offer, according to its architect Geoffrey Holland, “a constructive alternative to unemployment for young people”. Originally conceived as a short-term fix, it lasted five years becoming a semi-permanent mainstream experience in the lives of young people in the late Seventies and early Eighties, until its replacement by the wretched Youth Training Scheme.

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I make this point from my own personal history because I fear that rising unemployment among our young people is back, and by the summer we could be witnessing mass unemployment across this land again.

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It is my deepest conviction that we must do everything to prevent this. Not to do so would be not just an economic but a moral failure.

That we are going into recession is widely understood, and it may not be a short-term phenomenon; we could see a decade of mass unemployment, just as we have just endured a decade of real wage and benefit cuts and shrinking public services.

The unwelcome return of youth unemployment feels less cyclical and more structural.

More likely to be furloughed or made redundant

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently showed that young workers, that is those below the age of 25, are two-and-a-half times more likely than older workers to work in a shutdown part of the economy, in occupations like sales and customer services in sectors like hospitality, non-food retail, and hotels.

They are therefore considerably more likely to be either furloughed or already past the point of redundancy. When the mist of Covid-19 lifts later this year, we will survey a massive rise in youth joblessness.

This will be potentially as bad now as it was at the height of great recession of the 1980s. Because having been shaken out of work by the lockdown effect, it will be much tougher to get back into it.

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The inevitable lack of work experience of younger workers, and the invariable lack of skills compared to older workers means that not only will the number of job vacancies decline, those which do emerge will demand skill sets and work experience out of reach of younger workers.

Neither is it about young people pricing themselves back into the jobs market; they already are more likely to be on zero-hours contracts, and low paid. Remember the National Minimum Wage continues to have three differential youth rates for the under 18s, 18 to 20-year-olds, and for the 21 to 24 age bracket.

So we have a choice. We can either contract public services and leave the economy to market forces and corporate power. Or we can implement a plan for jobs and make community well-being and useful work the hallmark of our emergence from the Covid-19 pandemic. In a country with so much unmet need, tackling unemployment must be our number one economic priority.

School and college-leavers face challenging times

The last UK Labour Government introduced a Future Jobs Fund which provided young unemployed people with a real job for six months and paid the rate for the job. It also raised aspirations and improved physical and mental health and built up community benefit, and it had the confidence of the trade union movement.

The TUC is backing a Job Guarantee Scheme based on this model, calling for it to be designed to ensure there is no job substitution, that there is a community benefit or a contribution towards decarbonising the economy, and that it promotes and protects equality, and meets local labour market needs. We should also step up investment again in our Further Education colleges to expand access to re-skilling, up-skilling and re-training.

Leaving school, college or university and entering the working community at this time will be particularly challenging.

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We can write it off as bad luck or we can decide to do something about it.

It’s my view that we have a responsibility as a society to make sure that this isn’t a lost generation. We want our young people’s talents to flourish.

Numerous studies have shown that youth unemployment not only depresses wages, it has a long-term scarring effect on the individual which is still evident decades later.

So there is both a social, an economic but also a human dimension to this call for action. And the history of the last century shows us that there is a political side too. Political extremism, especially on the intolerant, repressive, racist right prays on high youth unemployment to foment its toxic cause.

Full employment must be the goal

We have seen over the last ten weeks a significant state intervention in the labour market by a Conservative Government. So there is precedent to build on.

But we cannot sit back and wait for Tory benevolence. We need to consider the design of an intervention in Scotland even if it is building on a baseload of funding set at a UK level.

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Of course, I wasn’t just holed up composing a 10,000-word essay in the university library back in 1984. I was also out marching on the streets of Glasgow, Liverpool and London demanding action to halt the closure of industries and calling for full employment to be a goal of public policy once again.

It used to be said that unemployment wasn’t an unfortunate by-product of Government economic policy – it was Government economic policy.

And if by accident, or worse, by design that is where we return then I will do whatever it takes, in Parliament and outside it, to lead resistance, and to build a movement for the alternative.

Our task in these troubled times is to harness the efforts, the creativity and the resolve of the people, including our young people, by offering hope, beyond the lockdown.

Richard Leonard is leader of the Scottish Labour Party

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