A Network of Regional Youth Work Units, in England, collaborating across regions to promote good youth work and young people’s voices.
‘We’re all in this together’ was the rallying cry back in 2010 as the new government took on responsibility for dealing with the impact on the UK economy of banks gambling with risky or non-existent assets. But the strategy, if that describes it, has not reflected that. Some groups have been considerably more ‘in it’ than others, and young people have been ‘in it’ right up to their necks.
Among the first initiatives to be cut by the incoming government was the Future Jobs Fund (FJF), which enabled public sector organisations to provide jobs with training for those aged 16-25. In the South West, Dorset County Council used FJF to create 10 youth work apprenticeships – real jobs to help young people get a foothold on a professional career. Despite the success of the project, Dorset has been unable to repeat it as they are not able to fund the posts from their shrinking resources, and across the youth work sector we’ve struggled to fund the jobs young people need.
Next, tuition fees for university courses more than doubled, from £3000 a year to between £6000 and £9000. Potential students were assured that this was a loan, no need to pay up front, and nothing to pay till you earn a lot of money – or several thousand less than the average UK wage, depending on your perspective. Unsurprisingly, there was a massive reduction in university applications the year this was introduced, cutting off university education to many, especially those whose parents can’t afford to pay for their education.
Youth unemployment has gone through the roof, currently running at more than double the overall unemployment rate. Today, young people are being told they should take ‘entry level jobs’ in coffee shops, so they can become area managers in a few years’ time. And while the number of apprenticeships has grown, the funding for each apprenticeship has reduced, making it harder to provide good quality training and support on and off the job. Independent and well informed careers advice has become a distant memory in many areas where schools are ill equipped to offer guidance about career paths and courses they don’t offer themselves – how many young people and parents do you know who believe the Raising the Participation Age means ‘staying at school an extra year?’.
Earlier this week, we heard that there has been a 25% increase in 20-30 year olds still living at home with their parents. Hardly surprising when there are fewer and more expensive university places, no full-time jobs and now no Housing Benefit to enable people to move away from home while still on low wages. And don’t get me started on the cost of housing and the challenges of getting a mortgage without a big deposit (or extra government sponsored debt).
And in the background, the drastic reduction in local government funding for youth support services continues apace. Most local authorities know they need to invest in preventative approaches to engage young people at risk before they reach crisis, but are unable to take money out of crisis services in order to resource early help, because demand for crisis services keeps rising – possibly because there is now nowhere else to go in many parts of the country.
What lies beneath…
So why is all this happening to young people? Older people have been protected from the worst of the economic recession with above inflation pension increases and retention of universal add-on benefits like free bus passes and winter fuel allowances. Working age people have suffered from wage stagnation and in many cases, reduction in paid hours, but at least they have had some compensation in terms of raised tax thresholds. The only groups who seem to have fared as badly as young people are new immigrants and people with disabilities. Which makes me wonder…what do these groups have in common?
Maybe I’ve watched too much Sherlock Holmes, but I wonder if voting patterns might be the connection? People aged over 60 vote regularly and in large numbers. Immigrants can’t vote unless they have UK citizenship, and young people don’t have the vote until they are 18, then in general don’t use it – 18- 25 year olds are less likely to vote than any other group. I suspect that makes them a soft target when governments and others are looking for spending cuts, as they don’t bring their grievances to the ballot box and don’t affect the results of elections. If they did, it would be much harder to ignore the plight of a generation that has borne the brunt of our financial crisis.
The power of the vote
In November 2013, UK Youth Parliament voted to campaign to make Votes at 16 a reality in 2014, and there is growing momentum behind that campaign. If it is successful, and if that inspires young people not just to use their vote, but to stand as candidates in local, national and European elections, will that make the next government realise they have to treat young people as full citizens, with rights as well as responsibilities, and place a value their contribution to the UK’s present and future?
I certainly hope so, and the debate around Votes at 16 is an opportunity to raise the profile of young people as responsible and engaged members of our community. In public debates on this topic (I’m thinking the Today programme on 21 January as an example) let’s make sure there are articulate young people making the case for themselves, rather than leave the field open to over-opinionated, under-informed celebrities.
Let’s help make 2014 the year young people got the vote!
Gill Millar, Regional Youth Work Unit at Learning South West
Photo credit (above): Maja Lampe