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The war against youth

Students marching in London in 2012 against the outrageous fees charged for university education. Photo Workers

You can judge a society by how it treats its young people. On that measure, Britain stands condemned…


A forward-looking, optimistic, collectively minded society will nurture and encourage its youth, ensuring they know how important they are now and for the future.

Research into the education, training, employment, housing, health and well being of young people under capitalism presents a very different picture. Henry Giroux, a well-known US youth researcher, has written angrily of a “War on Youth”, a sentiment that certainly resonates with the experience of young people in Britain.

There are plenty of examples of young people refusing to accept the situation. And despite the destruction of the 2011 riots in British, research into them showed that young people understand the causes of their problems. The reasons for their actions should never be underestimated.

Workers know that the only effective way to stand against capitalism is through demonstrating economic and class power. For that our young people need at least to be in trade unions. In this article we present some of the most recent research about the impact of capitalism on young people and the vital role trade union members play in taking them under their wing, helping to direct their anger against the employer and capitalism constructively and effectively.

Negative for Youth

The government’s youth policies all come under the strapline “Positive for Youth”. The fiction is that young people are solely responsible for themselves, as individuals. The first “role” for young people is what they can do about their future: “taking responsibility, making the most of every opportunity available, and speaking up on issues they care about”. This overlooks one fact: the government will never listen!

‘The prospects for young people are dire, and getting worse.’

Government policy accepts that capitalism is destructive of young people’s self-esteem and claims to set out to make them more resilient and self-reliant. The new National Citizen Service (NCS) is supposed to encourage them to build character through voluntary work, sport, entrepreneurism and civic engagement. It says without apparent shame or irony, “Your time at NCS will give you the tools to change the world around you through fundraising and volunteering”.

Anything to divert

NCS and similar initiatives are about anything to turn the attention of youth away from the fundamentals of their plight. The reality is that the economic and social prospects for young people are dire, and getting worse. According to The Economist (7 April 2015), labour market participation among 16- to 24-year-olds is 6.5 percentage points lower than in 2005. The young were the hardest hit by the great financial crisis of 2007-2008, still referred to euphemistically as “the recession”.

The research and policy focus in recent years has been those dubbed “Not in Education, Employment or Training” (NEET). Reports show that these young people continue to be deeply affected by the lack of real training and employment opportunities. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 963,000 of all young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are still classified as NEET – that’s over 13 per cent of the whole age group.

The discrepancy between the number of NEETs and those “unemployed” is the result of the relatively large number classed as “economically inactive” – over half a million – but as the ONS statistics do not include further data on them we don’t know what “inactive” means.

Youth employment data is hard to interpret given the range of government policies. One policy forces young people to stay in school by raising the school leaving age; another reduces vocational options in schools. Training and work-related policies range from draconian – the Work Programme and Mandatory Work Activity aimed at those with no qualifications – to ineffective “traineeships” for those who have not benefitted from, or have missed out on, both schooling and family support.

Other policies, such as the Youth Contract and Apprenticeships, have to pay employers to take on young people since they have no sense of responsibility towards youth. The idea of “apprenticeship” has become particularly debased.

Academic research published last year shows that apprenticeships do not serve as an alternative to university. It found that most of them are low-skilled, dead-end placements and do not guarantee employment after completion. There are some very good schemes that lead to decently paid skilled jobs, but these are massively over-subscribed, with BT and Rolls-Royce apprenticeships (see Workers, January 2014) attracting more applicants per place than Oxford engineering degrees.

‘The fiction is that young people are solely responsible for themselves, as individuals.’

The employment areas where apprenticeships are more likely to be available are in routine office work, health and social care, or retail. Engineering apprenticeships are still in short supply and in 2013-14 there were under 15,000 starts in the construction industry. As a result, overall apprenticeship vacancies are still well short of the number of applicants.

Those who are not NEETs or Rolls-Royce apprentices are faring no better. Nearly half of all school-leavers have been lured into higher education. Successive governments trying to disguise youth unemployment made promises, now broken, of a bright future. While the youth of this generation have more qualifications than any of their predecessors, they have been disproportionately affected by the 2008 slump, with high levels of unemployment, underemployment and insecurity.

For many of these young people the best hope is one of the enslaving, unregulated internships. And even then they need a degree and parents who are able to support them. Internships are unpaid or at best poorly paid, giving new meaning to wage slavery. It’s unclear how many of those tied to internships are included in the unemployment figures.

These positions are advertised by employers for highly qualified but as yet inexperienced young graduates desperate to get their foot on a career ladder. In the absence of real jobs, the competition for these internships is fierce, with no promise of a job at the end but offering yet one more thing to add to the CV in the hope this may lead to a job eventually.

‘Youth on the Move’

The prize for destroying meaningful employment opportunities for young people in Britain goes to the EU. That’s true too in other member states, except Germany, Austria and Luxembourg. Using data from 1975 to 2010, researchers from the London School of Economics found that Britain had had a record increase in immigration. The proportion of population foreign-born was below 6 per cent in the early 1990s, rising by 2011 to about 10 per cent. In London this proportion rose from 28 per cent to the current level of around 40 per cent.

Immigrants who are less skilled than British workers are substitutes for inexperienced young people and so may hurt young people’s employment chances more than adults’. Evidence shows that a 1 percentage point increase in the proportion of foreign-born workers in the working age population is associated with an increase in youth unemployment of 0.43 percentage points.

The EU has spent millions – we could not find out just how much – on its programme “Youth on the Move”, which has now come to an end. The programme’s name and aims are regarded by europhiles (including thousands of university researchers, sad to say) as positive! The opposite is true, the programme is bad for young people and their own countries everywhere in Europe, though we are all subjected to constant propaganda to the contrary.

Keep moving

“Youth on the Move” was based on the dangerous myth that mobility is good. It consisted of so-called research or development projects designed to keep young people moving round and round Europe looking for work. In doing so it ensured poor wage

levels and working conditions in those countries where they eventually do find employment, in Britain for example. At the same time this strips their own countries of young people.

These projects were even extended to NEETs, meaning that the most vulnerable could also wander about looking for work, unsupported by any of their home social networks or services. The latest EU plan is the Youth Guarantee scheme. This will supposedly ensure “that all young people under 25 – whether registered with employment services or not – get a good-quality, concrete offer within 4 months of them leaving formal education or becoming unemployed”.

‘There is a dangerous EU myth that mobility is good.’

In reality this will be another means of allowing employers to do what they like with young people’s working lives. And it will be subsidised by the working class in each country to the tune of €21 billion a year or 0.22 per cent of GDP according to a report on the eurozone job crisis from the International Labour Organization. The cost is justified by the cost of NEETs, estimated in 2012 by the EU agency Eurofound to be €153 billion a year in benefits and foregone earnings and taxes .

Low wages and high debt

The rate of youth unemployment for Britain was 16 per cent for April to June this year. That’s slightly down on the same period last year. But rising debt levels clearly show that those who are in work are still poorly paid. The Institute of Fiscal Studies reported in March this year that the median income of 22-30 year olds will be 7.9 per cent lower this year than in 2007-08.

In 2014 employment rose fastest among 20-29 year olds, the lowest paid adults. The fastest-growing sectors include those with low pay, such as care and cleaning. Also the fastest-growing group of workers in the labour market this year are those who have been employed for less than a year in their current role. All these factors will drag down wages generally – facts to be remembered when the government touts the success of rising levels of employment.

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