Leader: Chronic joblessness has become the new normal across Europe

At home and across the continent, governments are failing to address the causes of youth unemployment.

The greatest achievement of the Keynesian governments that ruled postwar Europe was to banish the spectre of mass unemployment from a continent haunted by the memory of the 1930s. Any return to pre-war austerity was viewed as both politically and economically unthinkable. But today, chronic joblessness has become the new normal across Europe. Five years since the present crisis began, EU unemployment stands at 10.9 per cent (26.4 million) and youth unemployment at 23.2 per cent (5.5 million). As Danny Dorling writes on page 22, “Even where the youth unemployment rate is lowest, in Germany, unemployment accounts for one young adult in every 13; in Austria it is one in 11 and in the Netherlands one in nine. What we now call low youth unemployment rates were once the highest we had ever seen.”
 
In the UK, while a modest economic recovery is finally under way after three years of stagnation, youth joblessness rose by 15,000 in the most recent quarter to a dismal 973,000 (21.4 per cent). Of this total, 274,000 have been unemployed for over a year. The cost to the economy in higher benefit payments, lost tax revenues and wasted capacity runs into billions. For the individuals affected, the consequences are no less grave. History shows that those who suffer joblessness early in their lives are often permanently scarred, with the long-term unemployed working two months a year less, on average, and earning between £1,800 and £3,300 a year less after the age of 25.
 
While in opposition, the Conservatives rightly rebuked Labour for its failure significantly to reduce youth joblessness, which, even in the boom years, never fell below 12 per cent and began to rise as early as 2004. Yet in government they have made a bad problem worse. Upon entering office, the coalition cancelled the Future Jobs Fund (only for a subsequent Department for Work and Pensions study to show that it had been an unequivocal success, with a net benefit to the economy of £7,750 per participant) and abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance, which had ensured that thousands who might otherwise have joined the dole queue remained in full-time education. After youth unemployment rose to a record high of more than a million, the government responded by introducing the £1bn Youth Contract, promising employers wage subsidies worth £2,275 to take on 160,000 18-to-24- year-olds over the next three years. Since the programme was launched in June 2012, just 4,690 jobs have been created.
 
In the short term, a compulsory jobs guarantee – such as that promised by Labour –would help address the cyclical crisis, but in the long term more ambitious structural reform is required. This should not mean, as some on the right suggest, stricter curbs on immigration and cuts to pay and benefits for young people. A study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that, between 2004 and 2010, youth unemployment among domestic workers rose fastest in areas with low numbers of migrants, and economists have consistently failed to find any evidence that the minimum wage deters employers from taking on the young.
 
Instead, the coalition needs to focus on improving the range and quality of apprenticeships available to the 50 per cent of teenagers who do not go to university, a group that was woefully neglected by the Blair and Brown governments. At present, just one in three large companies and one in ten small companies offer apprenticeships. Despite evidence that investment in skills is the greatest inoculation against unemployment, the number of youth apprenticeships fell last year. To reverse this trend, the government, with its fondness for outsourcing, could begin by making the offer of apprenticeships a condition of receiving public-sector contracts.
 
As the economy stutters back into life, prompting hyperbolic talk of “boom Britain”, the greatest danger is that those left behind by the recovery will be forgotten. If the country is ever to return to something close to prosperity, we cannot afford to continue to waste the potential of so many of our young.
Unemployed young people on the streets of Athens. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.