The challenges of youth employment and unemployment

I’ve been running a business in the UK for 25 years and during that time solving endless problems … but never has there been a problem quite like the problem of youth employment. This isn’t just a problem for my business but, I believe, for most employers.

Let’s start with youth unemployment, and then move onto youth employment …
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    The challenges of youth employment and unemployment

    Youth unemployment internationally

    Typically, those aged 16-24 fall within the category of ‘youth’.

    The youth unemployment rate in the UK is currently at 10.9% (4% being the av UK unemployment rate). You might be interested to compare this to other youth unemployment figures around the world:

    So, youth unemployment is an issue in the UK however, other countries are clearly struggling way more than we are – often for very different reasons of course!

    And here are a few more facts about global youth unemployment which again creates some of the backdrop to this issue, courtesy of UNICEF (2020):

    • Youth are approximately three times more likely to be unemployed than adults.
    • 75 million young people are trained, but have no job.
    • Almost 90% of all young people live in developing countries.
    • 23% of young people currently employed in the world earn less than $1.25 US per day.
    • 621 million young people aged 15-24 years old are not in education, employment or training.
    • Girls and young women make up the majority of the world’s 621 million young people who are not in education, employment or training (the unemployment rate of young women can be almost double that of young men).

    Clearly a lot of the issues flagged by global statistics do not apply in the UK, but I do think they underline the fact that younger workers in the UK are in a relatively strong position compared to younger workers elsewhere in the world. We just have to find a way to leverage this ‘relatively strong position’.

    What does the UK government believe causes youth unemployment?

    Our government has flagged the following 6 key ‘longstanding drivers’ of youth unemployment:

    1. Skills gaps and shortages.
    2. Access to careers advice.
    3. The further education system.
    4. Availability of apprenticeships.
    5. Support for disadvantaged groups.
    6. Co-ordination between government departments.

    What I believe are the 4 key causes of youth unemployment in the UK

    While I agree with some of the causes flagged by the government (support of disadvantaged groups), on the whole I’m a little confused … as my view, as an employer and someone who for 25 years has run an HR business, is somewhat different from the government’s view.

    1. Schools, colleges, universities and perhaps parents too, not making it clear that formal education is just the beginning of a lifetime learning journey

    Employers would love new recruits to join with a thirst for learning and self-development, as opposed to what we often see which is someone who believes that a graduation ceremony is evidence that they have finished their learning.

    We also see many who choose to play a passive role in any on the job training. Training is ‘done to them’. As a trainer, I can’t change anyone, I can only facilitate their learning. Those learning have to want to learn, they have to engage with their own training for it to be effective.

    Action: To change attitudes to learning, start talking in education about the learning journey and how what students learn formally is only a base line of knowledge and information that they will be developing across the next 40 years.

    2. A misconception that work should be fun, not onerous and always aligned with our values

    I would never wish to be the party pooper, but someone the reality is that most jobs from the most junior to the most senior include lots of tasks that are not fun, exciting and aligned with our values.

    Often it takes years of working in various roles before we have the luxury of finding a role that is suited to our values and that is more fun. Many never find such a role across their careers. If you have one, whilst still young, you are very lucky indeed or you have learnt that the fun comes from the social interactions at work, rather than the work itself.

    Working is supposed to fund our downtime and our fun, aside from putting a roof over our heads and food on the table etc. Expecting the work itself to always be fun, whilst achievable for a few, is simply a frustrating, disappointing dream for others. Too many young people are being damaged by unreal expectations around how we earn money and the world of work.

    Have all the doomsday scenarios around environment, pandemic, AI etc created a generation of young people who feel they have to live for today as there may be no tomorrow? I’m as much an advocate as others of living for the day, but if we always live that way, we would be wise to consider in advance the likely long-term consequences.

    Action: We need to stop painting a glossy image of the world of work, suggesting that young people can have the jobs they dream about. Also, parents, educators and government to ensure a consistent message about the reason why we work is to earn money, not expect continuous fun, passionate focus on what we believe in or an easy life. We keep tiptoeing around this issue, hating to break the bubble of expectations.

    3. Low resilience and fear of being challenged

    Most research does clearly indicate younger people that younger people tend to be less resilient than older people. There are far too many young workers who last only a week or month/s in their new roles. At the first hint of a stretching task, or of being challenged in their thinking, or operating in an environment where they don’t have their usual safe spaces, they resign.  Ultimately, most of this is about not being accustomed to feeling uncomfortable and having no strategies for dealing with it when they are.

    We don’t build resilience unless we get ‘knocked down’ and then get back up.

    To get back up more easily we need things like good relationships (people to support us), self awareness (to understand our reactions), a sense of purpose (to give us focus and reason to get back up), a realistic understanding of what we can control (worrying about what we can’t control makes us stressed), and an ability to manage our own wellbeing and stress. Taking time to work through what we learn each time we are knocked back is hugely helpful too as that shows us that bad stuff creates great learning. Too many think that ‘bad/difficult stuff’ is bad for us. Most of the time, that is simply not the case.

    Action: Sometimes we can be a bit too soft. Failure is not all bad so allow people to fail sometimes, every failure is a great learning opportunity. Also don’t hesitate to set harder tasks and challenge thinking. Be a bit more demanding. If you are a bit tougher, then those you manage will learn and develop so much. We are not talking about being a bully of course, but being challenging will result in more of your people reaching their potential. 

    4. Insufficient jobs for under 16s, plus young adults who have never worked

    This may be a little controversial to say, but are people working young enough? When you’re young and have a part time job you learn so much that sets the scene for the full time roles when you finish formal education. Young people who work learn hugely valuable things such as:

    • Social skills
    • Managing/valuing money
    • Soft skills: communication and adaptability
    • To be responsible
    • How to recognise a good or bad boss
    • How to work in a team
    • How to problem solve

    Legislation is so tough now most of employers simply can’t risk offering work and/or work experience to people who are under 16. It’s a real shame as I learnt a lot doing jobs when I was under 16. I managed to study hard too so it didn’t impact my education. In protecting some from harm, have we put millions of others at a disadvantage for life?

    As for 16+ roles…

    The employment rate of 16 to 17-year-olds has virtually halved over the past two decades – from 48.1% to 25.4%”. The rising number of people who have never had a paid job has been driven by the death of the teenage Saturday job and a wider turn away from earning while learning. 

    Here are a couple of social media posts I found, reflecting that we’re doing many young people a disservice by not expecting them to work. 

    “I’m 21 and never had a job so what do I put on my CV.”

    “I want a job but had baby at 19 so never worked. Now 24 with 2 kids and not sure anyone will employ.”

    If they don’t work they miss out on learning how to earn and value their own money and developing important skills, including self-confidence and self-worth, all essential for life.

    Action: Recruiters and employers to loudly communicate to academics, young people and their parents the value that is placed on people having worked during education…more to talk about in interviews, more to put on the CV, a more realistic understanding of what the world of work is about, more resilient new starters, easier to settle into a full time role.

    In contrast, the government and many large employers are asking schools and universities to teach the soft skills that would otherwise be learned if children and young adults were working. This takes away from the core curriculum that is being taught and, in any case, most managers of young people don’t want their new starters to have theoretical skills, they want real life skills.

    Can we educate or train our way out of this?

    Education/training can help, but it really is about so much more than just that. Managers, academics, teachers, government, society, parents, colleagues, religious and community leaders … we all need to think about what part we can play in turning this around.

    We are not protecting our young people if we molly cuddle them to death, and you only have to look at 1st generation immigrants in various countries to recognise that the highest performers are often those who have had the hardest start. Tough times incentivise us to improve, to learn, to earn, to strive for more. Having such low expectations of our children to bring home some money, to earn their own pocket money, to pay for some of their own expenses when they are a bit older etc is not helping anyone. Together we are all, unwittingly, adding to the youth unemployment problem. 

    Let’s talk, starting conversations…

    As a starter for ten, to initiate some conversations within your business, how about checking out our eLearning on Comfort Zones. We might recommend you could start with a small focus group who initially work through on their own the 15 minutes of Comfort Zone eLearning and then join together to discuss questions such as:

    If to grow our people, we have to ensure they regularly operate in a zone of discomfort, how can we support through this process and normalise feeling uncomfortable so it becomes less stressful? OR

    Who do we have in the business who are great role models at stepping out of their comfort zone to try something new and how can we share their stories with other staff?

    Other conversation starters that might be used in the same way are eLearning modules available from Jaluch on:

    Resilience, Problem Solving, Adaptability, Emotional Intelligence, Accountability, Creativity and Innovation or even Active Listening.

    Food for thought? Always happy to talk ideas through! Call us….

    “A journey of a thousand miles must be taken one step at a time…..”

    I would love to get your feedback and comments on this topic. I’m sure you will have far better solutions than me. What can be done to change some of the messaging? How can we support young people to see that the world is not so gloomy after all?

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    Disclaimer: The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.



    Helen Jamieson

    Jaluch MD

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