Why I don’t want to become part of the lost generation

Youth unemployment is scarring a whole cohort of young people.

My name is Ava Patel, I’m 23 and I have a degree in Journalism from Nottingham Trent University. After I graduated I spent over a year looking for jobs and I finally got one manning the phones in a call centre. I’ve not just been rejected for journalism jobs but for manual work too, including shelf-stacking at a well-known supermarket, despite being qualified and making all the effort to get the job. The most common reply I’d get to an email or an application form I’d spent about 45 minutes completing was “Due to the high number of applications your application has not been successful on this occasion. We cannot provide any feedback.” I read the same message so many times that when I finally got the call centre job, I was over the moon. I’d often get advisors at the Job Centre whilst I was claiming Job Seekers Allowance asking me why I was even there, to which I’d simply reply, “can’t get a job.”

Countless rejections without feedback started to chip away at my confidence but when I found out other graduates were struggling to find employment too, I realised it was less to do with me and more to do with the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs for young people. We are becoming the lost generation, there are over a million of us searching for work. We do have qualifications, work experience and drive, but we do not have the jobs to apply them to.

I finally got a position to work to raise awareness of youth unemployment as part of this year’s Channel 4’s Battlefront Campaign to tackle youth unemployment. I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Lib Dem Conference and the recent Channel 4 News Class of 2012 event hosted by Jon Snow, with contributions across the political spectrum, from MPs Damian Collins, Stella Creasy, David Milliband and Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King. While the debate was heated and passionate, not enough solutions were put forward. The Youth Contract only goes so far and all the goodwill behind work experience, training and apprenticeships schemes does not lead to job creation. We can have all the work experience in the world, but it won’t help us if there isn’t a paid, full time job at the end of it. We as young people need long term job creation, not more initiatives that provide short term solutions.

When I got the job to be a Battlefront campaigner it felt like my hard work and persistence had paid off. It almost felt surreal to think someone out there wanted to employ me, wanted to see all I had to offer. Part of Channel 4’s education output, this year Battlefront is focussing on the single most important issue facing young people today – the fact that over one million 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK today, according to the Office of National Statistics, are without a job. Youth unemployment is no longer a problem, but a disaster. And this is exactly what I said in the interview process. Along with three other campaigners we’re raising awareness of the issue on camera and online and my aim is to get young peoples’ voices heard. For too long employers and politicians have been calling young people job shy and lazy but for the vast majority of us this simply isn’t true. My ultimate aim is to speak to politicians about how they can provide solutions to make the labour market more accessible to young people. The current government’s answers to youth unemployment via the Work Programme and Youth Contract do not guarantee jobs and do not offer a sustainable long term solution. We lose £5bn per year in taxes and the economy loses £10bn per year in economic output because young people aren’t working [pdf], a crisis our country cannot afford, especially in the current economic climate.

In the past year alone youth unemployment has risen by 41 per cent (pdf) and it rose again this month. Young people like me, my friends and other Battlefront campaigners are suffering scarring effects of long-term unemployment and planning ahead for a life where we will never earn as much as previous generations. It’s no longer enough to give token gestures as we slowly lose our self-esteem, that’s not the tag line we want for the class of 2012.

Ava Patel is a Channel 4 Battlefront campaigner

A woman walks past a jobs board in Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images
GARY WATERS
Show Hide image

In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt