Social workers are helping young people not in employment, education or training to pick up the pieces. Rowenna Davis reports
Alec Rodger has been looking for a job for almost eight months. With middle class parents and good grades, he does not fit the conventional stereotype of a young “Neet” person (not in employment, education or training), but his situation highlights just how deep the economic downturn has become.
“I’ve spent so much time applying for jobs, but most of the time I don’t even get a response,” says Rodger, 23. “It’s like all my CVs are going into a black hole. It’s just depressing.”
Last year unemployment for 16- to 18-year-olds (the official age range for Neets in the UK) was 10%, and 15% for 16- to 24-year-olds (the broader age range used by the business community). Such figures are expensive to sustain: government records suggest that youth unemployment is costing more than £500m a year in benefits. In a recent report, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that this situation could worsen dramatically as the economy falters.
Dangers of unemployment
Recessions in the early 1980s and 1990s demonstrated how unemployment could unravel communities and people’s lives. According to Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Sheffield University, unemployed young people in the 1980s were twice as likely to commit suicide than people who were employed. He cites further research that shows how the unemployed are also 60%-80% more likely to report health problems.
Social workers are all too aware of the ripple-effect that unemployment has on families and communities. Government figures show that young people who were Neet when aged between 16 and 18 were three times more likely to be involved in crime in their late teens and throughout their twenties, while female Neets were 22 times more likely to be teenage mothers than the average. Unemployment has also been associated with higher rates of separation and divorce, drug use and domestic violence. Such problems make finding a job more difficult, kick-starting cycles of deprivation that are difficult to break.
With little or no experience, young people are often disproportionately affected by recession. Those looking for their first job are hard hit by recruitment squeezes, while those lucky enough to have obtained employment are often the last in, and so the first out. Jan Krauss, senior policy adviser for the CBI and author of the organisation’s Neet report, says that the knocks to confidence and self-esteem caused by unemployment often strike deeper in young people, who have fewer past achievements on which to fall back.
“Your first few years in employment is a really important time on your CV,” says Krauss. “Having a few years out looks really bad – employers will look at you, judge you and be less likely to employ you if you’ve had a few years out. There is a huge risk that delayed entry into the labour market can turn into long-term unemployment.”
Krauss says this situation is particularly bad in the UK, which ranks 23rd out of 28 in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) league table of Neets. “One in 10 people in the UK are Neet, in France this is one in 16 and in Germany only one in 23. This is largely about the way vocational education is provided and regarded – we need to give young people the option to learn a proper trade outside of school.”
So far, the government has introduced a raft of measures to deal with youth unemployment. In January, Gordon Brown announced 35,000 apprenticeships to help young people gain a foothold on the career ladder, and reiterated his commitment to raising the school leaving age to 18. Meanwhile the government is rolling out the New Deal, with the aim of intensifying support for the long-term unemployed.
School leaving age
But questions have been raised about whether these measures are enough. Apprenticeships are more likely to go to the most capable Neets than those who need them most – young people with learning disabilities or behavioural problems are unlikely to be successful. Meanwhile, Krauss argues that raising the school leaving age is unlikely to provide the “magic bullet” the government is looking for, because it might “postpone the problem rather than solve it”.
Rather than national initiatives, it is local service provision that could be the deciding factor in tackling youth unemployment, says John Harris, families, children and young people committee chair for the Association of Directors of Children Services.
“The financial crisis is an opportunity for social services to deepen their role in integrated youth support,” he says. “There is a strong correlation between Neets and looked-after children. Care leavers need more help to get into education, employment or training. Social workers will be very much at that interface. They will also have a key part to play in supporting the family unit, preventing family breakdown and [dealing with] the knock-on effects on relationships.”
According to Harris, local authorities should focus on putting prevention strategies in place now rather than picking up the pieces later. If so-called “pre-Neets” can be targeted early enough, then cycles of deprivation – and their associated costs – could be prevented.
Despite scepticism over social services’ capacity to take on such a role, Harris believes it is more about joint working than resources. “The frameworks are already in place,” he says. However, an increase in workload caused by a rise in cases could hamper that. “Of course we’ll need to monitor it – we are already seeing an increase in referrals because of the downturn.”
As part of its Neet report, the CBI came up with a series of recommendations about how young people’s services could exploit limited resources. The overriding message was that departments need to shake up their way of working – there is no time for conventional taboos preventing work across sectors and providers.
In practice, this means two things: working across providers to harness the expertise of the private and voluntary sector and working across issues to ensure that problems to do with health, education and housing are tackled together.
“All providers from all sectors should be given the same chance to compete for services, particularly when existing services are of poor quality,” says Krauss. “Local authorities will still call the shots – it just frees up their time and resources so that they can do more research into what’s needed and offer a better deal to taxpayers.”
The CBI’s report underlines that the private sector has an interest in tackling youth unemployment, and flags up some examples of good practice when that incentive is harnessed for public good. Property firm Pinnacle, for example, has started a project on one of its housing estates in Hackney that funds opportunities for local Neets. Since it has started the project, there has been less vandalism on the estate, reducing the company’s maintenance costs.
Similarly, a new approach in Bromley, south London, is giving young people access to all the agencies they need under one roof. By allowing young people to seek help on any health problems, drug habits, CV or housing issues from one agency, the Neet population in Bromley has fallen by 15%.
If adopted widely, such approaches could increase the role social workers play in joint working with other statutory agencies and independent sector providers. Their role would be to connect young people to appropriate providers and join the dots between the issues that they face.
If the recession is a threat to young people and communities, it is also a challenge to social workers. Some commentators say this could be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the response from young people’s services could determine how hard it hits future generations.
According to research by the Children’s Society:
● 7% of 11- to 16-year-olds said one of their parents had recently lost their job.
● 20% of 11- to 13-year-olds said their parents had cancelled a holiday this year.
● 22% of 17- to 19-year-olds said they were struggling to find a job.
● A quarter of this age group said they were worried about the bleak economic outlook.
● 25% of 11- to 13-year-olds have had their pocket money cut due to a parental job loss.
(1,000 young people aged 11-19 were surveyed by Nfp Synergy).
This article is published in the 26 February edition of Community Care under the headline “Meet the Neets”