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

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.