Rates Fall, but the UK’s Youth Unemployment Crisis Continues

This blog originally appeared on The Huffington Post.


Figures released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) this week showed that unemployment levels in the UK were at a six year low. Only 5.7% of people are out of work. While that would appear to be an encouraging sign of our nation’s economic recovery, it actually masks our still creeping youth unemployment crisis.

Admittedly, youth unemployment (those aged 16-24) has fallen. Only a few years ago there were around 1 million out of work, that figure now stands at 743,000 or 16.2%. This is still far too high and worryingly, the number of young people out of work for 12 months or more is broadly flat.

While it’s welcome news that overall unemployment is falling, the data also showed that 40% of all unemployed people are aged 16-24. What will this mean for our nation’s future economic prosperity?

Further, how much of the fall in youth unemployment that we have seen can be attributed to zero-hour and temporary contracts? Broadly speaking a zero-hour contract is a contract between an employer and worker where the employer is not obliged to provide the work with any minimum working hours.

UK Youth identified 100% growth in the number of young people working on zero hour contracts between 2008 and 2012; and in December, research by the TUC found that 50% of all zero-hour workers are under the age of 30!

In some cases, these forms of employment suit young people. Students for example might favour the flexibility that a zero-hour contract could offer. However, for those trying to start their career I can see how they would have the potential to be very limiting.

Combined with temporary contracts, which are also gaining popularity, these forms of employment deny young people the learning and development opportunities that are fundamental to developing skills for the workplace, which in turn will stifle their career progression.

During my career, I have learned that you need to be present in a business for a number of months to have the opportunity to gain meaningful experience. Aside from earning the trust of your colleagues, it’s an indisputable fact that businesses take a long time to deliver projects. Consumer brands and retailers will start to think about Christmas by the summer, if not before; PR and marketing campaigns require weeks of in-depth conception; and delivery of operational programmes, let alone transformations, can take years.

To see a project through from conception to delivery, a young person needs to be able to turn up to work and contribute for a number of weeks and months, not days. My concern is that our young people are being denied that opportunity.

This year the millennial generation will surpass the baby-boomers in size. This is often celebrated in business and the media. Millennials are flexible, collaborative and care about sustainability. However, these aptitudes hold less value if young people don’t have the skills they need for the workplace.

Overall, the youth unemployment crisis is still very much alive in the UK. The current rate is too high as it is, but when combined with the prevalence of temporary and zero-hour contracts, there remains little to celebrate for Britain’s young people.

Business may see some short term gain, but they could also endure long-term pain by exacerbating future talent shortages (which they are struggling with already) and diminishing the value of the British consumer base. The emergence of a poorly-skilled millennial generation will only serve to magnify the challenges we see in our society today. 

Charlie is a One Young World Ambassador from the UK and the Coordinating Ambassador for London and the South East.