A mad discussion of youth unemployment

Presenting youth unemployment as a mental-health issue is not radical.

A New Year and a new apocalyptic warning about the UK’s ‘doomed’ youth. According to a YouGov poll for the Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index, around nine per cent of the young people feel they do not ‘have anything to live for’. The Prince’s Trust then applied this percentage to the UK population as a whole to justify its claim that around 750,000 people aged between 16 and 25 may fall into the ‘suicidal risk’ category.

According to the Prince’s Trust director, Paul Brown, the problem with unemployment for young people is that it depletes not just their cash supply, but their self-esteem. ‘We need to recognise that unemployment doesn’t just lead to economic disadvantage for young people but can scar them’, Brown said. ‘There are a very large number of people still unemployed, lacking all hope for the future. We have a duty to make sure there’s something to look forward to.’ The Macquarie Youth Index report, citing interviews with 2,161 young people, suggested that self-harm, excessive drinking and illegal drug use can also be attributed to unemployment. Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, went even further in redefining unemployment as a psychological problem, declaring: ‘[The report] proves that unemployment is a public-health issue. It is one that must be tackled urgently and it is essential that youth unemployment is added to the public-health agenda.’

In previous decades, the political discussion of youth unemployment centred on how they might try to improve their employment prospects. Today, the discussion focuses on how young people can cope with the apparent psychological stress that unemployment is said to cause. For many old leftists, it is scandalous to question and criticise the way in which youth unemployment is currently being discussed. For these aging radicals (though not for many twentysomethings, who are increasingly sceptical about welfarism), it is seen as a betrayal of core socialist principles to suggest that young people should seek their way in the world rather than seek out a counsellor or welfare officer for ‘support’. Yet recognising that young people possess agency, an agency that can act on and in society, is far more radical than urging them to be recipients of well-to-do paternalism. And make no mistake, those driving the politics of pity are far more comfortable with young people seeing themselves as hopeless, and in need of support from their betters, than as risk-taking individuals with the capacity to change society.

Take Shirley Cramer’s assertion that youth unemployment should be viewed as a public-health issue rather than an economic one. This isn’t a serious discussion of the strengths and limitations of the current UK economy, but an attempt to present young people as uniquely vulnerable, frail and potentially damaged. Their only hope is to sign up to the sort of therapeutic interventions, and ‘informed choices’ programmes, that highly paid professionals in the NHS are keen to offer. Although it may sound vaguely radical to bemoan the psychological implications of unemployment in a free-market economy, it effectively pathologises British youth as being useless. There’s a noticeable contrast here with the discussion of the Romanians currently arriving in the UK - people such as Victor Spirescu, who, having landed in Luton on New Year’s Day to be greeted by a media scrum, declared he was simply keen to work. No one suggested that Romanian migrants had self-esteem issues.

The promotion of British youth as vulnerable will only encourage inaction and inertia. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Convincing yourself that nothing can be done without the professional intervention of a higher class of people is not exactly a path to bigger and better things. For many radicals today, to suggest that individuals have the capacity to change their destiny and not accept their fate is to buy into ‘neoliberal’ ideology rather than seek social solutions to social problems. Yet social solutions to the problems of low wages and unemployment must have as their starting point strong-willed individuals, before wider solutions can even begin to be fought for. That process is a long way off when hundreds of thousands of young people are encouraged to internalise the culture of vulnerability when taking their first steps into the adult world.

Indeed, the tried and tested routes that young people have taken in order to establish a career are frequently denounced as problematic and demeaning. Whether it is unpaid intern work (once known as ‘getting some experience’), doing a job you’re over-qualified for, or taking short-term contract work, commentators argue that young people need to be protected and shielded from these experiences. It may sound terribly radical to bemoan exploitative working practices, but in reality this amounts to calling for young people to be protected from the demands and challenges of growing up. Commentators forget that in the not-too-distant past, exploitative working practises were often dealt with by young people taking action at work rather than refusing to get out of bed in the first place. The way work and young people are discussed today often reminds me of a line in the Channel 4 comedy, Peep Show, where perma-unemployed oaf Jez says to his flatmate Mark, ‘I can’t believe you want me to get a job that’s not in the media!’. Unfortunately, many commentators on youth unemployment today make similar remarks with a deadly serious face.

The Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index survey is the latest way in which youth unemployment is recast as a mental-health problem in need of therapeutic intervention. Radicals may imagine this is a damning indictment of the failures of the UK economy, but it really just presents British youth as incapable in the absence of professional help and support. Worst of all, melodramatic headlines such as ‘British jobless have nothing to live for’ exacerbate fatalism and pessimism. As many of us have experienced, the UK and European labour market is tough, and well-paid jobs are difficult to obtain. But encouraging young people to seek out counselling and state support, rather than find their own ways to take on life’s challenges, is just about the worst New Year’s resolution on offer. Surely any self-respecting young man or woman deserves a better goal than that?

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics/sociology teacher in London.

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