Youth unemployment: what can we learn from Europe?

Germany and the Netherlands provide lessons, but we can't copy their approach wholesale.

Speaking at the launch of The Work Foundation’s Missing Million programme, David Miliband laid part of the blame for the rise in youth unemployment on the "chaotic landscape" faced by young people not bound for university. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Strong vocational systems in places like the Netherlands and Germany have served to keep youth unemployment consistently low despite the recession.

We all know that youth unemployment is a big problem – despite a slight recent fall there are still over one million young people out of work. The recession is only one part of the picture. Youth unemployment has been rising since 2003, which many will find surprising given these were the "good times" characterised by a sustained period of economic growth. The youth unemployment problem therefore cannot be explained by economic difficulties alone – its nature is both cyclical and structural. Unfortunately this means that the issue will remain with us even beyond today’s frosty economic climate.

The UK is certainly not alone in crisis – there are other European countries with much higher rates of unemployment. For instance in Spain, youth unemployment is staggeringly high, with half of young people unemployed. The UK itself currently sits around the European average, however in countries such as Germany and the Netherlands the rate has remained consistently low, with fewer than one in ten young people seeking work. Part of the explanation for the comparatively poor performance of the UK must be economic, but it is clear from longer trend data that this is only part of the answer.

Speaking at the event, Professor David Bell quoted Klaus Zimmerman who emphasised the strength of the German apprenticeship system, which he compared to a:

Gigantic microeconomic management exercise that involves all the relevant stakeholders in society.

In the UK, as the government recognises, the quality of apprenticeships is mixed. Currently, the success rate on apprenticeships is lower than other types of vocational skills training – although this is an improvement from a decade ago. Apprenticeships in the UK are much shorter than in some other countries, lasting between one and two years, compared with a norm of three years or longer in Germany and Austria. Another central difference with other countries is employer attitudes. Just 8 per cent of UK employers offer them, compared with a third in Australia – among the lowest in the developed world.

The rebuilding of apprenticeship began under the previous Labour Government and is being grown further by the Coalition. But we begin from a very low base, and it is not just the quantity and quality of the system that it is questionable - the lack of clear pathways into further education or work for those not attending university is compounding the problem, which David Miliband compared to a “field of unmarked landmines”. Part of the strength of the German system, Zimmerman argues, is the focus on detail and the co-ordination of all elements of a young person’s journey.

It is this that makes the difference, not, as Zimmerman said:

Lofty white papers or grandiose policy announcements issued in the national capital.

In Germany the system is built from the bottom-up, involving the whole community. While we have to recognise that we can’t entirely replicate their approach in the UK, we are lacking neither the organisations committed to the problem nor the political will to act. Ultimately, the focus has to be on the experience of each young person, and it is paramount that we ensure a continuity of support between school and the world of work – it is here that we can have the greatest impact.

German apprentices at work in Seimens. Photograph: Getty Images

Katherine Jones is a research assistant  for the The Work Foundation’s Socio-Economic team.

As part of their Bottom Ten Million programme she predominantly been working on a project on inequality in cities and investigating the changing characteristics of NEETs.

She studied politics and economics at the University of Manchester and hold an MSc in Social Policy Research from the London School of Economics.

Lizzie Crowley is leading The Work Foundation's work on Innovation in Cities for the Cities 2020 programme. She will also be running one of the Bottom Ten Million research strands, looking at the clustering of highly skilled workers in particular cities and regions and what this means for those with low skill levels.

Lizzie graduated in Sociology and has a master's degree in Social Science Research Methods, both from the University of Glasgow.

 

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era