1980s recession was worse for young people

In the 1980s, 26% of 16-24 year olds were not in full-time education and either unemployed or economically inactive. The current figure is 21%, or 1.6 million.

There has been much recent discussion, from both opposition parties, of ‘record’ levels of youth unemployment. But given that the records being referred to only began in 1992 – and that we are currently in the first recessionary period since they started – this is hardly surprising. However, data from the 1980s do exist* and they show that while youth unemployment is an urgent problem today, it was much worse then.

The earliest official unemployment figures we have found are from 1984, three years after that decade’s recession ended. They reveal that more than a quarter (26 per cent) of 16-24 year olds were not in full-time education and either unemployed or economically inactive – some 2.1 million young people not in work or training.

While this recession has seen the greatest GDP falls on record, comparable figures for July to September 2009 show that there are currently 1.6 million young people who are without a job and not in full-time education, around one in five (21 per cent) of the young workforce. Youth unemployment now is far too high – but in the 1980s it was allowed to rise unchecked and more young people and communities suffered.

Tackling youth unemployment should be any Government’s top priority – and the current situation is a cause for great concern. Long-term worklessness, particularly for young people, is proven to have scarring affects which place people at a higher risk of future unemployment, lower earnings and health problems, reduce local demand and consequent job creation, increase social problems and costs and reduce tax revenues. This is why continued investment in the Future Jobs Fund, a programme that promises young people real work paid at least the minimum wage and provides a far better chance than workfare models of preventing long-term worklessness, is vital. Scrapping it, as some have proposed, would be a social and economic disaster – the experience of the 1980s makes starkly clear what happens when Governments fail to invest.

* For those with a technical interest the series is annual and is not seasonally adjusted.

Our guest writer is Nicola Smith, Senior Policy Officer at the TUC

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