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.