As winter closes in on the ‘Covid Generation’ – those young people most affected by the pandemic – there continues to be few signs of optimism.
Youth unemployment, though creeping up significantly, has not reached the levels feared in the early stages of the lockdown, but with furlough support winding down, it’s predicted a million more young people, currently in or trying to enter the labour market will face significant barriers. Young workers are massively over represented in the economic sectors like hospitality, leisure and retail that have suffered most from the covid restrictions – it’s estimated that up to 40% of the work force in these industries are under 30, many in low-skilled employment. Revised job support measures, making it easier for businesses to retain some skilled part-time staff, will do little to help these industries.
The ‘kick-start’ initiative, a £2bn plan to finance 350,000 six-month work placements for the under-25s, is inadequate – unlikely to provide permanent high-quality employment and only available to those who have been out of work for 6 months. Meanwhile, apprenticeship opportunities (still being promoted as the main alternative to university study) continue to dwindle, with a third as many starts for the year ending this July for those under 19 (just 5000), compared with the same point last year- and less than half for those 19-24 compared with previously. Without a massive injection of government funds, we should fear for the very future of the scheme.
At the other end of the labour market, annual graduate recruitment has been culled ( two thirds of university leavers, ‘graduating in their back gardens’, have seen applications paused or withdrawn) as firms concentrate on trying to protect existing staff and more internships are being put ‘online’ – in many cases making them completely pointless. According to the Resolution Foundation, even three years after having left full-time education, the employment prospects for today’s graduates are projected to be 13 per cent worse. Of course, graduates are still much more likely to find employment compared to those with lower qualifications, but this leads to an intensification of ‘bumping down’ – where graduates move into ‘non graduate’ work at the expense of those who previously entered these jobs, worsening their situations still further.
Further down the age group, school students, effectively sat out the summer as exams were cancelled – it is still not clear what secondary school students will be subjected to this year. Despite initial fears that, after the A-level debacle many school and college leavers might ‘defer’ their places, young people have to flocked to university –increased staying on in education has been a feature of previous recessions.
Government, prioritising the opening of schools (hoping primarily that this would allow parents to get back to work) gave little thought to the consequences of thousands of students moving across the country to the confined spaces of campus residencies. Universities, either locked into contracts with private sector providers, or, as businesses, reliant on students bringing in money after weeks of closure, did little to prevent this, leading to a situation where, rather than experiencing an exciting ‘freshers’ week’, hundreds were locked down behind fences patrolled by security guards.
Pegged back but not (yet) able to fight back
Partying students, rounded on by the tabloids were also condemned by university leaders. But authorities quickly changed their tune as it was evident public opinion was clearly behind a ‘stranded generation’ – as a result, emergency ration boxes were replaced with proper food! But lectures and in many cases also tutorials have been put online – something supported by the University and College Union, but further disappointing, though probably not surprising students.
What is perhaps surprising is that the level of discontent has been at best modest. ‘9k 4?’ posters may have decorated windows and some organised protests over A-level downgrades took place, but there has been no real national movement for fees and accommodation refunds and university authorities seem likely to survive the winter without one.
It is ironic, if not a little disturbing that, as ‘mass higher education’ has replaced the ‘university for the middle-classes’ of the post-war years, the National Union of Students has been little more than an onlooker rather than an organiser. This says as much about the changing aspirations, potential vulnerabilities, but also the atomisation and fragmentation of its membership, compared to their privileged predecessors, as the organisation itself – now facing ‘disaffiliation’ threats. Education unions, though of course sympathetic to students have concentrated primarily on the work-place safety of their own members.
Likewise, those young people most in danger of losing their jobs are in poorly unionised sectors, or face situations where trade unions, not able to confront the growing precarity of work, devote most of their resources to looking after their ‘core’ , allowing new younger workers, often outside of existing agreements, to slip through the safety net. There are also major regional differences in the effects of Covid on youth jobs.
There has been no serious attempt to put forward an alternative economic programme for young people linked to new types of jobs. And the Labour Party, attracting youth support in the last two elections on the basis of promising to end tuition fees, still does not have clear coherent policies for young people and as a result has found it difficult to connect – though like the Tories, it’s been anxious to get and keep, schools and universities open.
As has been clear, social media savvy young people, being well connected to each other, are able to organise quickly , but in the absence of any national youth organisation so to speak of, it’s up to labour, trade union organisations to lead the way.