Underestimating the resilience of youth

Officials obsessively focus on helping young people cope with unemployment, rather than overcome it.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Topics Politics

Happy New Year? Not according to the Prince’s Trust’s Youth Index 2013. Apparently young people have never been more miserable and lacking in confidence.

Having interviewed just over 2,000 16- to 25-year-olds in the fifth survey of this kind, the Prince’s Trust revealed that one-in-10 young people now feel they cannot cope with everyday life. For young people not in training, education or employment (so-called NEETs), the psychic damage is even greater, with near enough 50 per cent reportedly finding it difficult to cope with day-to-day existence. The stats just keep coming. We are told that 43 per cent of young people believe the recession has set them back in their careers; we are told that 51 per cent of young people are disillusioned with the state of the current jobs market; and we’re told that one in five believe ‘their confidence will never recover from their spell out of work’.

Even the ever-hyped world of social media contains a world of pain. The report tells us that many young people, ‘feeling isolated in their lives, are turning to online communities for support’. But to no avail: ‘More than one in ten young people have been bullied online, while one in five say they have witnessed more bullying online than in person.’ We’re then told, not surprisingly given the cruelty on offer online, that two thirds of young people would prefer to talk to someone in person than online if they had a problem.

It is a truly depressing portrait. Vast swathes of British youth, assailed by economic insecurity and mass unemployment, are now increasingly suffering the psychological consequences. And not even the internet can help. We’re told that unemployment can ‘leave long-term scars on young people’, that, for those at the bottom, ‘life can become a demoralising downward spiral’. And we’re reminded, again and again, that young people in general are struggling to cope. They need help, formal support and, no doubt, a spot of counselling.

There is a grain of truth to this misery mongering. These are indeed disillusioning times. In fact, colloquially speaking, these are often depressing times: the economy is stagnant and youth unemployment, not to mention its adult equivalent, is as miserable a prospect as it has ever been. So it is natural that young people will feel more insecure, and more trepidatious, about their futures than perhaps they might have done 10 years ago.

But here’s the thing: reports such as Youth Index 2013 don’t help, they hinder. By focusing on the often understandable emotional reactions to the prospect of unemployment, they tend to transform an economic crisis into a mental-health issue. Young people here feature less as potential problem-solvers, as people who might possibly forge a brighter and better future for themselves, than as victims, as the passive recipients of economic ills. This doesn’t help anybody; it is a form of debilitating self-fulfilling prophecy. Encouraged to think of themselves as ‘unable to cope’, as ‘scarred’ by unemployment, to conceive of themselves as the economy’s depressed outcomes, young people will actually start to act out these defeatist roles. If you’re told often enough that you can’t cope with a difficult situation, chances are that situation will indeed appear difficult to cope with. In short, young people are being encouraged to perform their victimhood.

Of course, the Prince’s Trust is far from the first body to turn the recession into a potential mental-health problem, a problem of people’s emotional wellbeing. In 2009, the then New Labour government talked darkly of ‘a depression and anxiety epidemic’ following the financial crisis, ‘a surge of people who become mentally ill’. Hence it announced plans to train 3,600 therapists and hundreds of specialist staff to deal with the mental-health effects of redundancy and unemployment. And more recently, Lib-Con deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has spoken of the ‘real long-term scarring effects’ of youth unemployment.

And once the problems of the economy have been transfigured as the mental problems of the economically hard-hit, then the solutions change accordingly. So instead of people challenging a so-called economic reality, or instead of a government seeking to create conditions in which prosperity might be possible, the solutions acquire a largely therapeutic aspect, be it New Labour’s army of counsellors and psychologists, or the Prince’s Trust’s mentoring schemes and proxy support networks. As Oasis main man Noel Gallagher remarked last year, the focus today is almost entirely on helping people to cope with unemployment, rather than overcome it.

There is a strong whiff of fatalism about this response to our economic travails. People will suffer; the young will be scarred; and there is nothing, it seems, that people themselves can do about it; our mental problems are economically determined. The only answer is a bit of therapeutic intervention, a spot of confidence-boosting counselling. In the words of the Royal Society of Public Health’s chief executive, Richard Parish, ‘these unemployed young people need support to regain their self-worth’.

Yet is that necessarily the case? After all, how on earth did young people ‘cope’ in countless other eras of economic turmoil? Could it be that there is nothing necessary, nothing inevitable about this currently much-trumpeted inability to cope? Could it be rather that young people, if given the opportunity, are potentially far more resilient than the likes of the Prince’s Trust give them credit for?

So instead of turning temporary despair or passing self-doubt into problems to be indexed, mapped and treated, perhaps a better place to start would be in the realm of things – not moods. After all, the real solutions to our economic problems are to be found not in our emotions, but in our activity, our stuggles. Current economic stagnation certainly makes life tough. But it becomes tougher still if we don’t believe we can cope with it.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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