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They graduate full of hope, then reality kicks in

Who would want to be leaving school or university this summer? When I finished my education five years ago, the default setting among escapees was optimism. 

Sure, we were sad to wave goodbye to friends, fancy dress festivities and — for some of us, at least — studying, but there was a wider world of work we wanted to be part of. Today, that feeling must have turned into despair.

According to research released this week, an average of 73 graduates will be chasing every job. But if the situation sounds dire for the highly educated, imagine how those without letters after their names feel as they fire their CVs off into the abyss. More than one in five 16- to 25-year-olds is currently out of work. They aren’t simply suffering alongside everyone else — the young are being hit disproportionately.  

I’ve spent the past three years wondering what it will take for those in power to tackle the problems facing the under-25s adequately. For instead of helping them, this Government seems intent on kicking them.

The Education Maintenance Allowance was abolished. Tuition fees have trebled. And if the Tories stay in power, the young can look forward to having their housing benefits scrapped too.

But nowhere does this attitude manifest itself more obviously than on youth unemployment, where the Government’s £1 billion Youth Contract is nowhere near enough.

Perhaps the Conservatives have largely given up on the young, deciding that it’s easier to convince the generations above that the fresh-faced are just shirkers, too hopeless to find work or to deserve homes or help. Certainly, the under-25s are easy to ignore — they don’t, after all, vote in the numbers that the elderly do.

But if there is a political explanation for half-hearted action, there certainly isn’t an economic one. At current levels, youth unemployment is estimated to cost the public purse £4.8 billion this year. And it leaves long-lasting scars too, as the young struggle to catch up when they finally do enter the workforce. According to the ACEVO Commission on Youth Unemployment, that means an estimated £6.3 billion hit each year to the economy in lost output.

 Business has a role to play too. This week, bus operators agreed to give discounted or limited free travel to the UK’s one million NEETs (those not in education, employment or training), reducing one of the greatest hindrances to looking for work. Perhaps we could re-work that line attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “A man who, below the age of 26, finds himself on a free bus is taking a step towards success.” The Government must help prevent his being on a ride to nowhere.

 Written by Rosamund Urwin for the Evening Standard