SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 129 - June 2009

Britain’s youth: in the frontline of the crisis

THE CRISIS unfolding in the economy will have devastating effects for young people. The latest figures show that there are 875,000 under-25s currently unemployed. With the number of available jobs falling, many of the 600,000 young people finishing school, college and university this summer will also end up on the dole. University students will carry the burden of tens of thousands of pounds of debt, part of Blair and Brown’s legacy for young people.

This crisis is compounding what has been on offer for young people for years. At present, seven in ten employed under-25s work in low-paid jobs. Already in 2008, 40% of 18-24 year-olds who wanted a permanent job were not able to find one. With easy credit being withdrawn, and under-25s bearing the brunt of job losses and unemployment, this will have severe consequences.

Young people are concentrated in the retail and service sectors, where low paying jobs include working for Tesco, which has recently posted record profits of over £3 billion. Similarly, government job creation and training schemes include 10,000 at McDonald’s – training to do what, flip burgers? – numerically, a drop in the ocean. But there is still the possibility of the collapse of retail chains, such as Woolworths, and other store closures. Local shops, restaurants and smaller-scale chains are already disappearing. Job losses in this sector will hit young people as a whole, including students with part-time jobs. Unable to support themselves through university, drop-out rates could increase. The insulting minimum wage increases this year will add to the fury – a 7p rise in the ‘adult’ rate (those over 21), with even less going to the 18-21 and 16-17 rates.

Industries more likely to offer higher wages, such as manufacturing and construction, have shed large numbers of jobs. Increasing numbers of young people will face a future more and more comparable to that faced in Italy and Greece, juggling several part-time, insecure jobs to make ends meet.

Only 12.2% of working 20-25 year-olds are members of a trade union, which drops to 4.4% for those aged 16-19. Employers can see young people as easier to hire and fire. But they could overreach themselves, provoking protests and spontaneous action. Some youth could attempt to organise outside the ‘official’ labour movement, especially where trade union leaderships do not act. As the effects of the economic crisis pervade the lives of workers and youth, this becomes more likely. The examples of workers who have already taken successful action, such as the occupations and pickets at Visteon, the unofficial strikes and mass meetings around the Lindsey oil refinery dispute, provide a new generation with examples of how to struggle. Where there are fighting trade unions, these can grow and young people are already playing a key role.

In April, 56,000 youth lost their jobs, from an average of 12,000 a month in 2008. There will be well over a million unemployed youth by the end of 2009. Already, before the crisis hit, the education system was failing many youth in the inner cities. The age at which young people left home, especially young men, was on the rise. These social problems will be massively exacerbated, with increased alienation from society and added pressures on families.

The government has promised training schemes for youth unemployed for more than a year, seemingly modelled on the current New Deal programme. But this scheme is sold on the proposition that this crises will be short, as outlined in Alistair Darling’s budget projections. In reality, young people will be forced into training for menial jobs that do not exist.

In the public sector, 100,000 new jobs have been promised to ease youth unemployment, but on what conditions? The PCS civil service union is campaigning against the draconian conditions that already face many workers in call centres, benefit offices and other sectors overwhelmingly made up of young people.

Already in place is a £10 million trial scheme run by the youth volunteering charity ‘v’, to enrol young people in 44-week long, 30-hour a week programmes, with little or no wages, with an NVQ level 2 qualification the only thing guaranteed at the end. In the 33 boroughs where this scheme is being piloted, the presence of a large group of medium-term, unpaid youth will invariably mean that they will be doing work that would otherwise have been done by full-time permanent staff. As unemployment rises, this is likely to be rolled out on a wide scale.

Parliamentarians, caught with their hands in the till this May, face the wrath of those being forced to pay the price for this crisis: workers and especially youth. A hatred of politicians, their corruption, but also their policies, will be a key part of young people’s outlook. There is a huge vacuum in terms of political representation, but discussion on politics and political ideas is increasing among a layer of young people.

Education could be seen as a way out for many. A planned rise in the age of compulsory education to 18 may be brought forward to hide unemployment figures. This year there is a record surge in applications for universities, up 15.8%, with advertising campaigns playing on fears with taglines such as, ‘This year, I’m investing in me’. Cruelly however, the government is not going to provide funding for all those who meet university application standards. Tens of thousands of applicants will be left without places as a result.

Many universities’ finances are in a dire state. Announced at the end of the financial year, coinciding with the exam period, millions of pounds worth of cuts are being pushed through universities including, in a number of cases, the closure of entire courses and departments. London Metropolitan University is among the worst hit – 550 job cuts to fill an estimated £50 million hole in the budget. This has provoked a fight-back on the part of students. Demonstrations have taken place in Liverpool, London and Brighton, with sit-ins at a London arts college and London Met.

These come on the back of a number of sit-ins and protests at the start of the year in protest at the Israeli state’s bloody campaign in Gaza. These protests often achieved a number of their demands, mainly centred around academic and humanitarian aid to Palestinians. Although university management made what amounted to mainly limited concessions, these protests represented a step into activity for a layer that had been largely passive in the past. These concessions have given this layer confidence and, together with workers’ struggle, will inspire further student protest.

It is noticeable that the National Union of Students (NUS) played no role in the sit-ins over Gaza or in fighting cuts on the ground. NUS president, Wes Streeting, scandalously condemned the UCU lecturers’ union ballot for strike action. Streeting said that a strike was needed ‘like a hole in the head’. In Wales, NUS lobbied for changes in the funding system which, despite promises of increased bursaries, will result in students paying more. Labour Students, the moving force behind NUS, condemned occupations over Gaza and all occupations as a tactic for struggle. With recent changes in the nature of NUS to limit internal democracy, in the short term at least, it will act as more of a barrier to struggle than an organisation to encourage it.

This is especially important with a review of university fees on the horizon. While New Labour has most likely postponed this review until after a general election, the university management organisation, Universities UK, and the capitalist press, led by the Financial Times, are baying for an increase in fees to £5,000 or more per year. This would effectively bar young people from working-class backgrounds from attending university and must be fought at all costs.

There is a pick-up in the level of protest and political activity among young people. At Sussex Downs College, students organised a walkout against staff sackings and cuts. In fighting trade unions, such as the PCS, there is an increase in young people getting involved, and in the young members’ structures. This summer, with 600,000 youth starting to look for jobs, alongside students looking for summer work, could see a transformation in the situation. Youth Fight for Jobs has called a fortnight of action (27 June to 10 July) to help express this anger. This campaign, with the involvement of Socialist Party members, will have a key role to play in the struggles that will break out.

Ben Robinson


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