I think I would best describe myself as having been fortunate to have left education and found employment in the 1970s, and quite easily really, and when you consider today, those who have just left school only a week or so ago, may not have such providence or good fortune.
For instance in the mid-1970s, 174 school leavers from two Nottinghamshire Schools left education and 32 per cent obtained the first job they applied for, whilst 86 per cent had jobs within a month.
My statistics are obtained from ‘The Transition from School to Work’ by M. West and P. Newton 1983. West and Newton’s book and study was one of the last British inquiries to be completed before school-leavers’ prospects changed radically. In their study they paid little attention to youth unemployment which was not really a problem back then, only in depressed regions and among specific ‘problem groups’ such as persistent truants, young offenders, and other young people who seemed unable to settle and hold onto any jobs.
In the 1970s training schemes did not feature at all, there were none except what was known as ‘Community Industry’, introduced in 1972 to cater specifically for those young people who were deemed incapable of obtaining or had problems of holding on to jobs that were then plentiful in most parts of the country.
The youth employment scene and, indeed, the entire process through which young people enter the work-force today, is very much different, or would that be an understatement.
The principal change has undoubtedly been the decline in youth employment itself. It is very true to say that unemployment levels throughout the workforce have become much higher and more persistently so since the 1970s than in the 1950s and 60s. This is a trend forced on by modern capitalist production, new methods of mass production connecting it with the new technology, rendering many crafts and trades totally redundant, not to forget an available easy to reach and cheap workforce in other parts of the developing world.
Recessions have been deeper than those experienced during the so-called thirty glorious years of almost continuous economic growth and full employment that lasted from 1945 up to the early 1970s. Subsequently there have been insufficient jobs to accommodate all would-be workers, and teenagers’ difficulties have been one aspect of the wider unemployment problem. However, employment among young people has declined much more sharply than the pace at which general unemployment has risen, and youth employment failed to recover during the economic boom in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Young people have normally been especially sensitive to any general trends in employment and unemployment. In times like this of rising unemployment young people have become particularly vulnerable for three reasons. First, employers slow down recruitment and this always has especially strong effects among newcomers to the labour market who have no existing jobs to hang on to. Secondly, when profit margins have been under pressure, employers have often made savings on training. Firms have been reluctant to train young people when they have felt unable to guarantee future employment. Employers have often taken the view that such training would waste young people’s time as well as the firms’ resources. Thirdly, in times of high unemployment school-leavers have needed to compete for jobs against displaced adults whose experience has often given them the edge. It is unnecessary to look beyond these factors to account for the spread of youth unemployment from the 1970s to the present day.
What may have sponged up the worst effects of visible youth unemployment such as further education provision which has now become unaffordable for many and means that many young people will be marooned on the sinking Ireland of mass unemployment, although we can expect the government to move and force young people to be placed on dead-end work experience schemes that are exploitative, authoritarian and will offer nothing for the future. Capitalist economies cannot generate enough quality jobs and have inevitable difficulties in keeping young people in transit for as long as is necessary, this I suggest was a factor that led to the summer riots. The social systems of the Western countries are producing more would-be workers, generally young people with good qualifications and modest or high aspirations, than can be accommodated in good jobs. It is this sort of social system which we have in Britain, a kind of disequilibrium and instability that capitalism has been unable or unwilling to fix since the 1970s means that today many young people’s transition from education to work will end in failure. Some may become, and forced into a new underclass. The most vulnerable individuals will be from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in terms of family structures, their parents’ employment records, and the levels of unemployment in their localities. It is likely that their parents, schools, and teachers, the young people themselves will continue to be blamed; anything and everything will be blamed except the system or capitalism the real rough-cut course of all our troubles!”