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.


Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.