SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 134 - December/January 2009-10

How capitalism fails youth

EVEN AT the height of the so-called boom, one in ten young people in Britain were out of work, training or education. Recession-hit, it is now home to a million unemployed youth. A recent book by Fran Abrams, Learning to Fail, highlights this systemic failure. One of the first images in the book is the blowing up of the Beaston Clark glassworks chimney in Barnsley, which had stood for 117 years. The book is about the changing nature of work, how it has impacted on today’s generation, or as the subtitle brutally puts it: How Society Lets Young People Down.

Written before and during the onset of the present economic crisis, it offers a deeper look into the causes of long-term youth unemployment. A mixture of objective fact-finding and the experiences of eight young people who are interviewed throughout, this is a thought-provoking book. It does not have, nor claims to have, all the answers.

In September 2007, 670,000 reached school leaving age. By then, 20,000 had already dropped out of education, 30,000 were missed out of government surveys, 40,000 were Neet (not in education, employment or training) five months after finishing. That means that around one in seven school leavers were unable to find a suitable job or college course after finishing school. The young people in, or on the fringes of, this section of society, are who the book concentrates on.

The above figures, and those for youth unemployment, had been slowly creeping up during the economic boom. They are now accelerating quickly. Learning to Fail opens with the statement that "the number of unemployed 18-24 year-olds in Great Britain rose by 70% between February 2008 and February 2009". The failures of capitalist society towards young people will be hugely amplified by the economic crisis.

Young people born during Margaret Thatcher’s rule and beyond face an almost entirely different set of industries and jobs to those of their parents. British heavy industry has shrunk massively, and those working in these industries are largely older workers. These industries, and linked to them the idea of a job for life, are a closed door to young people. This is partially because of the changing nature of the British economy. It is also because of the setbacks to trade unions organising to defend jobs and conditions, as well as the lack of opportunities for young people, something which the book does not touch on.

Apprenticeships, especially the kind that lead to qualifications and jobs, are virtually non-existent. For the 670,000 school leavers of 2007, Fran Abrams estimates that just 8,000 will complete an apprenticeship of this kind. Vocational education in schools has risen in the last few years. Incredibly, it looks likely to be targeted by Alistair Darling for cuts. Workplace education, ‘learning on the job’, has been cut massively by employers only looking at their immediate profit levels. Yet they complain that young people don’t have the skills to work, and that too much is spent on education!

Of the jobs available, many are temporary, in bad conditions, and on low pay. One of the areas investigated by Abrams is Dearne Valley, a former mining and steel area of South Yorkshire. There are around 12,000 jobs in the area now, compared to 9,000 in the early 1980s. Yet unemployment is one of the highest in the country. Of the 12,000 jobs, the vast majority are in call centres and warehouses. These jobs hold no appeal, no opportunities and no security. Trade unions will have to assert themselves in these workplaces to change that situation, something that can only come about on the basis of struggle.

There is clearly a gulf between what is on offer for young people today and what was on offer for older workers when they completed education. The disintegration of the ‘family unit’ cannot be blamed for the increase in youth unemployment and alienation, as Tory Iain Duncan Smith attempts to do in an interview – and any future Tory government will do so, too. Changes in education spending mean that only one in three secondary schools has a qualified careers advisor as part of its staff. The government’s careers advice service for 16-19 year olds, Connexions, is severely underfunded and target driven. A large majority of young people do not benefit from its services in a meaningful way.

This has an impact on young people’s choices for education. When there are reported shortages in computing, information technology courses boom. In a ‘brave, new economy’ based on soft skills, is it any wonder that media and business studies have boomed? This is especially true as education institutions, especially universities, reorient towards courses they can sell. Fran Abrams writes: "Each year 160,000 people [in England] embarked on courses in hairdressing. Less than one-tenth of those were trainees taking day-release courses at college. The prospects for the rest looked mediocre, at best: the total number of working hairdressers in England at the time was 145,000 – so there were actually the same number of hairdressers – including trainees – as there were hairdressing students".

In a situation where young people can be left without careers advice, it is clear that even with the will to work and train, that is not enough to get a job. With vacancies dropping, it is getting harder, especially when competing against more experienced workers who have been made redundant. This exposes the inadequacy of the government’s answers to youth unemployment. They all boil down to offering extra training and experience, falling far short of what is needed. As ever, the vast majority of young people are prepared to train and work hard. But suitable jobs are not available for everyone.

A programme of creating jobs, linked to the education system, could solve that problem. More fundamentally, if investment in jobs and public services could be relied on in advance, then a certain amount of new jobs created each year could be relied on and the options available could be clearly presented. But the capitalist economy, based on a chaotic short-term outlook, does not operate like that, demanding that skill shortages are filled immediately. This was the case with plumbing a few years ago. But when one of the young people in Learning to Fail looks for work, there are no plumbing vacancies countywide.

Learning to Fail also tackles the social issues around youth unemployment, and young people excluded from society. The differing situations for black and Asian young people, and women, are examined, although inconclusively. The idea of some link between the near-full employment and low divorce rates of the 1950s and 60s is investigated, concluding "Divorce may have been uncommon up until the 1970s, but unhappy families were not".

This book looks at some of the most important issues around alienation from education, work and society, before the economic crisis. Among youth, there was an increasing layer who have been failed by capitalism. This is set to grow significantly and will be an issue that directly affects everyone. Learning to Fail is well meaning but short on helpful answers, and is absolutely clear that whoever forms the next government will not solve the problem. Youth unemployment will be a major issue for society to tackle, but one that capitalism cannot.

Ben Robinson

Learning to Fail: how society lets young people down

By Fran Abrams

Published by Routledge, 2009, £18.99


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