March 10, 2015, by Public Social Policy

The Participation Age and the Promise of a Better Future

By Stefanie Williamson

With the ‘Increasing opportunities for young people and helping them to achieve their potential’ policy in full effect this year, the government has raised the participation age and young people leaving year 11 will now be required to stay in some form of education or training until the age of 18. But, what can this culture of focussing so intensely on the supply-side of the labour market achieve if the jobs to accommodate a highly-skilled workforce are not available?

Youth unemployment was a significant issue even prior to the recession, with youth unemployment rates fluctuating over time, but rising steadily since 2002. Considering that participation has risen steadily over the same period, for both those in full-time education and those not in full-time education, it might be assumed that the youth unemployment issue may not be due to a lack of education amongst young people. There are many potential contributing factors which have added to a trend of high youth unemployment. What is clear however, according to the 2014 report from The UK Commission’s Employers Skills Survey, is that lack of education or basic skills are not reasons why employers are put off younger workers. In fact the biggest grievance that employers have regarding their younger staff is their ‘lack of working world, life experience or maturity’ and the second most cited reason is ‘poor attitude, personality or lack of motivation’, whilst lack of education is the least cited reason. Where employers had received job applications for under-25s but turned them down, the majority did so because other applicants (who are presumed by the report authors to be older and have more work experience), were preferred. It seems then that younger people may be suffering not because of a lack of education or skills, but simply because they are young and inevitably therefore lack comparative experience. The problem is that policy cannot change the fundamental basis of biology and time.

Suppose that the measures coming in to effect are not solely so that young people can simply obtain employment, but rather can access ‘better’ employment opportunities. This is an admirable political concern, considering that many young people will not have access to various forms of advantageous capital. The long-term focus on up-skilling the workforce has coincided with the preoccupation of successive UK governments and the EU with an emerging knowledge-based economy wherein technological advancement would necessitate a higher-skilled workforce. However, what we are seeing is actually significant growth in the lowest skilled and lowest paid jobs as well as the very highest skilled and highest paid (to which young people may have limited access due to their lesser work experience compared to older workers).There seems to be a missing middle of skilled jobs to accommodate younger workers with high educational attainment, which may leave them with nowhere to go apart from in to elementary work. Furthermore, the value of high-skills has decreased as more and more people access higher education and as the ability to outsource knowledge work to a wealth of global graduates willing to work for lower wages has prevailed.

If the UK is turning out more and more highly-educated young people, but does not have the jobs to meet demand, what happens to young people then? I can only speak from my past experience of being a Master’s graduate who, at the height of UK’s recessionary youth unemployment rate in 2011, could only find a temporary Christmas Customer Service job. I knew I had built up high levels of transferable skills throughout my many, many years of education, but the jobs I would have liked seemed well beyond my reach. This was not how human capital theorists said it would be! And this must be an experience shared by numerous young people with high educational attianment. They have been encouraged by a culture which reasons that in order to avoid the short straw of ‘lousy jobs’ (as Goos and Manning put it), you must invest in your skills, education, employability, build your CV, gain work experience, take unpaid internships etcetera. But this can only go so far. Until we have the economy which supports such a high number of skilled young people, with even more set to enter the labour market following the recent policy changes, many may be left with the broken promise of neoliberalism and human capital theory, doing jobs they have been repeatedly told they should aim higher than.


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