Our founder Martin Bright writes in today’s Guardian about the dangers of youth unemployment. We risk facing a ‘public health timebomb’, due to the the terrible power unemployment has to sap physical and mental wellbeing.
Could it really be that things are looking up for young unemployed people in 2014? Well, no, not really. The point about being unemployed is that it is a miserable experience that saps your physical wellbeing and mental health. Eventually it burrows into your sense of self.
There will never be a good time to be unemployed, as each one of the million or so young people currently not in education, employment or training will tell you. Those unfortunate enough to be unemployed this year will find themselves at the mercy of Iain Duncan Smith’s increasingly chaotic welfare reforms, an ever more punitive sanctions regime and a Work Programme so ineffectual that even ministers once evangelical in its support barely mention it any more.
Professor Sir Michael Marmot of University College London has consistently warned of a “public health timebomb” if youth unemployment levels remain high. The influence of his recent work for the World Health Organisation, and as an adviser to this government, should help make jobs for young people a key priority for the year ahead.
Most people would accept that it makes no sense having such large numbers of young people on the dole, their talents untapped and their hopes unrealised. But what is sometimes forgotten is a genuine understanding of the value of work itself. In a market economy, our very identity is defined by what people are prepared to pay us to do. This is why the culture of free labour is so pernicious. Thanks to the work of campaign groups such as Intern Aware and Graduate Fog, 2013 was the year in which it became socially unacceptable to take on unpaid interns (it is already illegal).
Just before Christmas I visited South Shields to speak at an event to help a group of young apprentices who had just secured jobs in the cultural sector. In a small community arts centre, the Custom Space, my charity had organised a day of workshops, talks and discussions as part of the Arts Council-funded creative employment programme.
I was struck by the enthusiasm of the participants, all school-leavers with very limited experience of the world of work or life outside the north-east of England. During one of the breaks I spoke to a young man who had secured a catering apprenticeship at Souter Lighthouse, a National Trust property in Whitburn near Sunderland. He said he couldn’t summon much interest for the “creative industries” and wasn’t looking for a job in the arts. He had struggled at school and wasn’t too keen on the written exercises we had set him and his fellow apprentices. But he was prepared to give it a go because he was so proud to have a job. He said the early starts were tough, but it gave him a sense of purpose. Then he took out his phone: “Look at this!” he said, as he scrolled through photograph after photograph of the lighthouse at dawn. He explained he took the shots every morning on his way to work to remind himself of how lucky he was to have a job in such a beautiful place.
It made me think of the booklet provided to every participant on the Works Progress Administration, the Roosevelt-era job creation programme in the US that inspired me to set up my charity. There, a whole page is given over to a single slogan in bold capital letters: “WORK KEEPS US FROM GOING NUTS”. It’s as true in 2014 as it was when the words were written in 1936.