Roxanne Ellis is the GMB representative on the TUC Youth Forum, and a local councillor. This weekend, TUC General Secretary Designate Frances O’Grady asked her to speak on her behalf at a conference in Nottingham on youth organised by the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament. This is a slightly expanded version of her opening remarks on youth unemployment.
Frances asked me to represent her because I’m one of ‘the one in six’ – those feckless, lazy, work-shy layabouts you’ve heard so much about. The politically correct term is ‘long-term unemployed.’ I’m 24 years old, living with my parents, claiming jobseekers allowance.
People like me appear regularly in the Daily Mail editorials as the very definition of a social evil. According to them my highest ambition is to become a single mother and live off the taxpayer for the rest of my life whilst giving nothing back to society. This is of course blatantly not true. The problem is that those Daily Mail editorials are the evidence base that this government uses to plan social policy!
I’m actually ‘one in a million.’ The latest Labour Market Report from the TUC shows that officially some 963,000 young people are unemployed. At least a quarter of these have been unemployed for at least a year.
Young people are victims of the neoliberal austerity policies being pursued across much of Europe. We have Governments addressing the economic crisis by slashing public expenditure and talking down confidence in the future. During the current recession unemployment hasn’t risen as fast as it was expected to. This is attributed to companies holding onto employees and squeezing hours and pay rates. People in work are being made poorer and more dependent on in-work benefits. From research we know that youth employment and unemployment is affected disproportionately by changes in the overall economy.
I have tried to give back to my community by becoming a local councillor. The Jobcentre demands I bring them legal proof of the hours I dedicate to that or they’ll strip me of my benefits. Unlike other councillors who receive an allowance on top of their other income, I have mine deducted from my benefits which are reduced to £5 a week. And I am castigated as a scrounger!
I have twice been asked if I was prepared to step down as a councillor to spend more time looking for work. Not actually to take a job, just to look for work.
I’m not the only one.
A friend was spending one day a week at college to do her A-levels and go on to university. The rules say you can spend 14 hours a week doing voluntary work or training. This young woman was aiming to better herself and make herself more employable. But she was told by the jobcentre that they were going to take her off JSA because she wasn’t doing enough to look for work. JSA was her only source of income at this point, she couldn’t rely on her family as so many young jobseekers are forced to do.
Other comments we’ve heard from Jobcentre staff include:
“This is the Jobcentre, it isn’t our job to help you find work.”
“Leave your qualifications off your CV, it scares employers, just make something up for the time you were at University.”
“Don’t mention trade union or student union experience, it’s intimidating to employers”.
We’ve seen this Government penalise young people. They scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance, they’ve reduced the connexions service and reduced careers advice, they’ve trebled tuition fees.
The Labour Government’s Future Jobs Fund provided real jobs for young people paid at least the national minimum wage. This Government scrapped the FJF and since then we’ve seen the scandal of unpaid internships and the Work Programme – and the changes of getting a job if you are on the Work Programme are worse than if you’re not on the scheme.
Youth is a point of transition when people should be leaving education, leaving home and making their way in the world. Research shows that young people who enter the labour market during a period of high unemployment face adverse consequences for the rest of their lives. In particular:
- Their lifetime earnings are likely to be lower
- They are more likely to be “underemployed” (eg end up in lower-level occupations)
- Have poorer health over their lifetimes and have lower life satisfaction scores
To take this to a personal level, I have been unemployed now for over a year. Scarring - the damage this will do to my long-term career prospects - is not an abstract concept with me. It is painfully real. Young women like me tend to be overqualified and underpaid anyway and this will only add to the pay gap.
We know that youth unemployment damages social cohesion and increases the support for extremist parties. It is essential that social democrats develop an effective response to the crisis of youth unemployment and demonstrate to young people that there is an answer.
The TUC’s Charter for A Future That Works calls for urgent action by government, employers and other organisations to address the unemployment crisis facing young people today. The Charter calls for action on 5 fronts
A Job Guarantee: The Government should guarantee paid work or training to every young person who has been out of work for six months or more.
Action on Apprenticeships: All public bodies should commit to recruiting a set number of apprentices each year and public sector contracts should require all private contractors to have a quality apprenticeship scheme.
Quality Work Experience: Young people should have access to good quality work experience that includes a guarantee of both quality training and a job interview at the end of any placement.
Welfare Reform: In the short-term the Government should reform the rules on Jobseeker’s Allowance to allow young people to return to full time education without any effect on their benefits. In the longer term we need a Youth Credit (or other financial support) to help all young people boost both their learning and employment prospects.
Practical support: We need extra measures to help young people stay in education and assist with transport costs to enable young people to travel to work.
I often get into arguments with people who claim ‘young people are the future.’ We aren’t. Saying that only means policy makers get to kick the can further down the road.
We are the here and now. The problems we face are here and now, the solutions we need must be in the here and now!
All we want is a chance. A chance to work, a chance to play our part in society, a chance to contribute to this one nation. At the moment we are not being given that chance.