In better times, a look at the year ahead for young people in Britain may have covered a broad spectrum of topics. Currently, however, there is only one topic on the minds of most under-25 year olds: work.
Youth unemployment, and the various ways of dealing with it, dominate the agenda for young people in Britain today.
The most immediate event will be the outcome of Cait Reilly’s legal action against the government and its work placement programme.
The programme requires young to work for up to 30 hours a week, unpaid, in order to keep their jobseekers allowance.
Technically, they must “express an interest” before they can be placed, and are given a one-week cooling-off period; however, some have reported that they were put on the scheme without knowing about these rules.
After the cooling-off period, jobseekers must finish their programme, which can be as long as eight weeks, or lose benefits.
Cait is one of the young people who has worked on the program.
The BBC reported:
Ms Reilly was told in November of an opportunity to attend an open day about job vacancies that could lead to a week’s training and a job interview.
He said when she attended the open day she discovered the training would last up to six weeks, including a two-week, unpaid retail placement.
As a result, she is challenging the legality of the programme under the human rights act. Her solicitors argue that the element of coercion involved renders this programme, and others like it, illegal.
The judicial review challenge will be lodged in the new year, and Cait’s solicitors are seeking a quashing of the act. If the work placement programme survives, and becomes more widespread, the number of young people forced to work for a wage equivalent to just £1.78 an hour could increase dramatically.
Along similar lines, the ongoing campaign against unpaid internships looks likely to pick up steam next year.
In early December, HMRC warned fashion labels against using unpaid interns and treating them as employees.
HMRC assistant director Michelle Wyer told Vogue:
“These letters give fashion houses plenty of warning that they are under scrutiny. If they are not playing by the rules, now is the time to put things right. Non-payment of the national minimum wage is not an option.
“Our message is clear: don’t wait for us to come knocking on your door; put things right now and avoid a penalty and possible prosecution.”
Other industries with cultures of unpaid internships have also felt pressure stepping up. In politics, even though Nick Clegg promised in April to tackle the problem, changes have been a long time coming. 15 Liberal Democrat MPs even offered new internships after Clegg’s statement.
Recently, however, a broad coalition has grown against the practice, ranging from Paul Staines to the Guardian. HMRC has yet to deliver the same warning to MPs that they did to fashionistas, but a battle does seem to be brewing in Westminster over the issue.
Both of these issues are subsets, however, of the overwhelming concern for young people next year, which is the high and rising levels of youth unemployment. Currently, a million people aged between 16 and 24, over one in five, are unemployed.
As we look likely to be plunging back into recession, at least in the first half of next year, this situation is not going to get better any time soon. And this growth in the number of unemployed young people is matched with a strengthening in the old Catch-22 that requires people to have experience to get a job, and a job to get experience.
For those young people on the first rung of ladder, life may recover as the economy eventually unfreezes. But the task for policymakers is to ensure that the recession doesn’t create a lost generation, of people whose long term unemployment removes them from the labour market before they were even in it.
It may be that the fresh entrants into work in 2012 will arrive in a recovering market. It probably will be the case for those in 2013 onwards. But the people who’ve been seeking work since 2009 or 2010 and remain un- or underemployed will need more help to make the most of that recovery than simply being thrown into the deep end.
There are other issues, of course; there always are.
Schools are being affected by the shakeup of the national curriculum; the government’s pressing cuts on youth services will really start to bite in the next year as leases run out, rent is missed, and savings are sucked dry; and for young disabled people, the prospect of the introduction of means testing for their ESA will hugely impact their quality of life.
But for the vast majority of young people in Britain today, it’s the economy, stupid.
• Cameron is pricing the young out of education and consigning them to the dole queue – Sally Hunt, December 14th 2011
• Unpaid internships are wrong: We need action, not words, from Clegg and Miliband – Ben Lyons, November 30th 2011
• Million young unemployed figure highlights enormity of the situation hitting our youth – Rory Weal, November 16th 2011
• Cameron and Osborne want the unemployed to work for £1.78 an hour – Alex Hern, November 10th 2011
• Why won’t the government walk the walk when it comes to unpaid internships? – Gus Baker, November 8th 2011