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Young people and the recession: a precarious life

This article is over 12 years, 9 months old
Socialist Worker spoke to a number of young people about their lives and how the recession is affecting them
Issue 2144

It seems that life just gets tougher for young people. Tested at school from an early age, demonised and criminalised by a hostile media, police and politicians and daunted by huge debts should they go to university, young people are now also being hit hard by the recession.

One in three school leavers is unable to find a job. The official unemployment rate among 16-24 year olds is three times higher than the national average.

The Prince’s Trust calculates that the actual figure is much higher – with an incredible 1.5 million 16-24 year olds out of work.

When New Labour came to power in 1997 Gordon Brown described youth unemployment as “sickening” and “a human tragedy”. Yet there is a generation of school students who are growing up preoccupied by fear for their future.

Many young people now face the unhappy choice of chasing jobs in a shrinking market or risking huge debts by going on to higher education – with no guarantee of a job at the end of it.

They are discriminated against both in and out of work – with a lower rate of job seekers’ allowance for those under 25 years old and a minimum wage

of £3.53 an hour for those under 18 years old.

These jobs are often insecure, with people being given part-time contracts that mean working overtime while receiving no holiday pay or sick leave benefits. And as they earn less money, they rarely set up pensions or savings accounts.

Yet it is clear that the recession is causing anger and raising many questions. The “war on terror” has shaped a generation into not trusting the government – this has led to growing radicalism and politicisation of young people.

Lottie (17) & Wil (20)

‘Student fees rule out any chance of university’

Lottie and Wil moved to Birmingham last September, hoping to find jobs. Despite applying for hundreds of jobs between them, they have struggled to find any work.

Six months on and Wil has found a job charity fundraising in Oxford, while Lottie is still unemployed.

The area where they live is being particularly badly hit by recession – four of the five parliamentary constituencies with the highest rate of unemployment are in Birmingham.

Lottie and Wil’s experience is similar to that of many young people across Britain.

Lottie explained how hard it is to find a job. “I’ve been looking for work for months. I would take anything, I’m not fussy, but all I’ve found so far is a Christmas job for a few weeks at Debenhams department store.

“I would like to go back to study. But unfortunately I need money more than education right now.

“Its really hard making ends meet on benefits or low wages.

“We have barely enough money coming in to pay the bills. We’re left with £5 a week for food. We have an electricity meter which is a con because we end up paying more than the bill would be.

“Everything is more expensive when you’re poor. We put £5 a week in the meter – so we can’t afford to run any electricity at night. We hardly ever go out. We moved into a council flat a couple of months ago, but it’s in a bad state. We can’t afford any furniture so we sleep on an airbed.”

“It’s been really difficult,” says Wil. “For ages I was applying for about ten or 15 jobs a day. I got a handful of interviews, but all I found in that time was two weeks working in the German street market when it came to Birmingham.

“I’ve got GCSEs and A-levels and was trying really hard to find something. I would love to go to university – but that would mean taking on thousands of pounds of debts that could still be hanging over me in ten or 20 years time – and with no job security at the end of it.

“I’ve got friends with university degrees, and even with masters degrees, who are working in pubs or supermarkets as they can’t find any other job.

“When I started looking for work the job centre was quite impressed with all the effort I was going to.

“But then after a few months I got a letter saying that I wasn’t trying hard enough and that I had to report every day to prove that I was looking for work. I felt insulted. It is a hassle finding the energy to keep looking for work when you’re not getting anywhere, but I do want to be working.

“I eventually found a job doing charity fundraising. It can involve being sent anywhere in the country at a day or two’s notice. I’m staying in a hostel during the week. It’s really hard being away from home all that time.”

Lottie says she thinks the recession is particularly hard for young people.

“We get less benefits and lower wages and it’s harder to take the stress. Maybe adults can take the pressure better. I’m only 17 and I find it really difficult – this is what capitalism does to you.

“It’s age discrimination that young people get lower benefits. We use the same electricity and same food and water. I guess you’d expect to have trouble finding a job, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”

Wil says that he has found it interesting doing fundraising for charities during the recession.

“You find that the working class are always the people most likely to give, rather than those in suits that just pass you by.

“I think it’s because working class people can understand what others are going through at the moment.

“You could see the same around Gaza. Despite the recession, working class people raised thousands of pounds to send to help people in Gaza.

“The recession also means the split between the ruling class and the working class gets bigger and it brings this divide to people’s attention.

“I know more people who are motivated to do things now than a few years ago. People might have felt secure in the past – but not now. If you read the papers it’s all about why people are losing their jobs because of falling profits.

“It’s an absurd system – just because the capitalists are making a bit less money out of people, they throw them on the dole.”

Wil also has fears about what else the recession could lead to.

“With the Euro elections coming up, the British National Party (BNP) are trying to put the blame for unemployment onto migrant workers and exploit the row around ‘British jobs for British workers’ we’ve seen on construction sites this year.

“Birmingham is one of the most multicultural cities in Britain but I worry that a low turnout will mean that the BNP will make gains.”

Lottie adds, “It’s bad that the world is so dominated by money. Things should be more equal. The government has no idea what life is like for ordinary people.

“They should be helping people who are in desperate need, but instead they are handing money to the bankers and causing unemployment by refusing to nationalise failing companies.”

Jordan (15)

‘My friends are realising that something is wrong’

Jordan is a Year 10 school student in Baccup, Lancashire.

‘I worry a lot about how I’m going to get a job and how I’ll fund myself.

A lot of people my age who aren’t even political are starting to worry about the recession – about how it’s going to impact on their family and what it will mean for them.

We had a career adviser come into our school – it wasn’t very inspiring. He kept telling people that they weren’t likely to get the jobs they said they were interested in.

The recession is a bit of a buzz word – something people talk about even though they don’t really know what it is. But people who know that I am political ask me about what it means.

The economic situation is bad, but it’s good that it gets people talking. It really hits home that the system is flawed – though only for people on one side.

Those who have property and money are OK – even though the firms go bankrupt, the people at the top seem to do fine.

It shows up the problems with the distribution of wealth.

I’ve tried raising some of these issues in my lessons, but the teachers say I am too political.

But everything is political. And this is a school that has let in army recruiters! Surely that’s political too.

We really need some educational reform. At the moment education is not set up to learn, just to ingest information for exams.

It’s a really shallow form of learning. Education should be about bettering yourself or discussing ideas.

We have exams at the end of every topic. Our grades are sent home to our parents every half term.

It’s stressful being constantly monitored – and its all about passing exams that may not even mean anything in the future.

Take geography for example. We learn about forms of land ownership that don’t exist now.

We could be learning about things that are relevant today – like the human geography of the Middle East.

The other thing that really bothers me is that there is not enough focus or action about sexism and oppression of LGBT people.

There should be a lot more done for women’s rights. Nothing like equality exists at the moment – there’s a long way to go.

I have been interested in environmental and other issues for a while.

Then I started to think about why things are so unequal. I got interested in anarchism, but I thought there was something missing so I looked into Marxism.

Karl Marx explained years ago how things could happen like this recession.

Most of my friends are not very political and I feel like the people who do care don’t really do enough.

But things don’t have to be like this.’

Sarah (20)

‘It’s going to be hard trying to find a job’

Sarah is an FE student at Tower Hamlets College, east London.

‘I’m studying fashion photography. I’d like to see myself getting work in the industry in a few years time but I think it’s going to be hard to find a job.

Everyone in my class is feeling the strain and it adds to the stress when you think you are going to be competing for less and less jobs.

This time last year I don’t think any of us felt like this.

It bothers me that young people are always seen in the negative – labelled as being involved in crime and alcohol abuse.

That’s partly why I want to go into photography – I want to start looking at more positive labels for young people.

The government is not thinking about young people who aren’t working yet. In four of five years it’s going to be a big problem when we can’t get jobs.’


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