A recent YouGov poll has found that one in ten British young people feel that they “have nothing to live for”. If applied to the population as a whole, alarmingly, that equates to 750,000 people aged between 16 and 25 who feel that way in Britain.  

This figure is largely a result of the high unemployment rate causing a lack of direction and opportunity.  The study, conducted for Prince’s Trust Macquarie Youth Index, also found that 40% of jobless young people have experienced symptoms of mental illness, such as suicidal thoughts, feelings of self-loathing and panic attacks, due to their unemployment.  Those sorts of figures among youth could cause an ideological revolution if we’re not careful could they not?!

Prince’s Trust director, Paul Brown, emphasised that the findings show that unemployment is not just about money, it’s about self-esteem. He puts it well when he says that ‘we have a duty to make sure there’s something to look forward to’ for young people.  Often our mental health is all about goals and direction.  We have a duty to young people to give them the opportunity and the dignity of work.

Liverpool councillor Jake Morrison, young himself at 21, argues that his visits to secondary schools indicate that too many young people are being urged on to university as the path to success, when more students should be encouraged into trades if that better suits their skill set.  He comments that:

we now seem to be on the road to building this ideal society where too many young people are funnelled into university when their talents could be better developed elsewhere. We need hairdressers, plumbers, construction workers, healthcare assistants, retailers, entrepreneurs and we need to reflect this in our education system.

From a New Zealand perspective, I agree.  Many New Zealand young people have a fun experience while at uni – but fun experiences can be gained in other ways without racking up a huge student loan.  And for those who it doesn’t suit, often little else is gained.  Surely apprenticeships and ‘on the job’ learning can be just as effective and productive in learning to do many jobs well – jobs which can be well paid and purposeful for those with dedication and ‘nous’.  

A part of this process is perhaps redefining what we consider to be ‘success’ at school and, more importantly, what young people feel it takes to be successful.  We all need to be given the opportunity to contribute to society, and then know that that contribution is appreciated.  While not a long term solution, the self esteem generated from contributing can even come through volunteer initiatives. 

New Zealand schools are increasingly collaborating with polytechnics (more practical than university) to help give students who are less academic more options that can be equated with ‘success’ at school.  Germany, where apprenticeships and vocational training have long been the norm, has the second lowest rate (8.2 percent) of youth unemployment in the European Union. Often practical study tracks also work closely with industry to ensure that students have the rights skills to match with jobs available – as opposed to the more theory based university approach.  Many economists think the gap needs to be closed between the world of education and the world of work to help to solve these issues. 

I definitely see the need for broad education and even think it would be great if we brought back to secondary schools the basics of thinking and philosophy – but at the end of the day tertiary skills need to translate into jobs.  While there are no easy answers, we must ensure that young people have the opportunity of the dignity of work which allows them to afford to marry and have families.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...