Young, unemployed and out of hope — how to change a broken system

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Lockdown is being lifted and employers are reopening their doors. As non-essential retail, eateries and public places begin the process of adapting to this anxious new world, young people face a hideous prospect for the future. The post-lockdown economy is set to look like a half-empty pot of rotten stew, the contents spilled and wrecked by necessary measures. Young people will face the brunt of this situation. It’s their low-paid, unstable economy on the line.

The IFS reported back at the start of April how young people were at most risk from both lockdown and the resulting recession. An extensive report published in later that month by Impetus established a speculative landscape for young workers. The results revealed a dangerous situation for young people, characterised by already built-in inequalities in the job system. Why has this not received the attention it deserves?

A concept which has regularly appeared in reports is ‘scarring’, a way to describe the impact of economic and social challenges on young people which may impact future job progression. It’s no surprise that coronavirus will cause immense scarring to young workers, added to more poverty increasing demand on food banks and charity services. Impetus also reports on how young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more at risk of this effect.

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Regional and infrastructural differences will add to this disparity from ONS data.

The work being touted as essential for the economy to restart, namely retail and leisure, are more likely to be staffed by young people on low-paid shift work. Without better representation, young people are often sucked into roles which do not give them a fair deal. The minimum wage is not enough to cover economic necessities, especially travel and living costs, while younger workers are paid less for doing exactly the same job. It’s shocking that an apprentice worker is only earning £4.15 an hour — labour that is being leaned on both economically and politically.

The think-tank Resolution Foundation, as well as Impetus, have urged more action to counteract the coming shock of a mass unemployed young. Their newly-established Youth Employment Group bringing together sector interest in helping young people through the recession. Schemes incorporating education at all levels, apprenticeships, better access to work and work coaches — all good prospects which will ensure some benefit and weather the storm. A recent joint letter from the YEG’s think tanks, charities and industry partners has been sent to Downing Street asking for a guarantee to ensure young people’s futures are better assisted post-lockdown.

But young people already face a brick wall due to the unfair system of applications which employers use. It is not a universal system; there are always differences between each single place of work. You could apply for a job in a major retailer, who asks you to complete an application form, CV, cover letter, thirty minute aptitude test, group interview (if you’re lucky) and final face-to-face interview (if you’re really lucky). Whereas a salaried employer for an office job may just want your CV. This lack of consistency makes applying for jobs both tiring and unproductive.

Standardised applications across all sectors would make young people’s task a little easier. The same goes for employers’ attitudes to the applicants themselves. Instead of treating every beleaguered person like a disposable tissue, employers have to start engaging with applicants more directly and with more empathy. A slight mistake on a CV is a fate worse than death. Why though? Shouldn’t a conscientious employer reach out to an applicant with advice?

Employers should be legally obligated to give firm reasoning, advice and justification for every application rejected. An employer who simply casts the application into a bin without a word or with a pathetic stock line about ‘high demand’ is failing to give applicants a better chance of employment in the future. The silence isn’t just deafening — it’s genuinely depressing. To face so much rejection if your CV isn’t up to scratch, or from simple lack of advice, is a crippling drain on a person’s morale which is always in low supply if you’re unemployed. If you get a reply to an email, regardless of its content you’ve practically hit the jackpot.

This lack of engagement with applicants goes further still into the interview stage. Only one in five people ever reach the face-to-face interview, which if multiplied to fit a very attractive role means a lot of downhearted people wondering where they went wrong. Again, this passive voice which may (or may not bother) reject an applicant rarely refers to weaknesses in the application. It’s a brick wall will be bricked up higher and higher with the government requiring more of employers post-lockdown.

Why does this all matter? Young people are at the start of their lives, perhaps still unsure about where to go and what to do. To begin a journey with so much rejection, disappointment and anger over job applications and failed attempts translates into scarring for future prospects. Cynicism builds after such a negative experience with work — only amplified by the end result being a low-paid job without support. Young people without A-level or degree qualifications are more at risk from this experience.

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From BBC article 13/05/20

Structural change at this level is so simple and yet pushed away with ‘competitive market’ jargon. The advice young people receive is not fit for this age. We can’t walk down the high street handing out CVs to shops and cafes. Job Centre appointments bring their own heap of trouble, namely the threat of a sanction system from the DWP. It’s seemingly impossible to discuss any opportunities without being told to go online — the place where we dwell, forever scrolling and scrolling. It’s a kneejerk reaction with such little engagement or effort in the people an employer hopes to attract.

Some simple fixes for a punitive system: legislate a requirement for employers from all sectors and sizes to establish better engagement with applicants. This has to be personalised, not with basic ‘reply to all’ emails. Applicants must be told why they were not successful at all levels, especially at interview. Giving constructive feedback should be mandatory and subject to audit. Building a standardised application system across all sectors would ensure applicants aren’t just wasting their time on paperwork when the outcome would likely be the same. This isn’t handing power over or destabilising any ancient rites. It’s a guard against young people being constantly shafted, and employers failing to provide a responsible, empathy-driven service to potential employees.

Coronavirus isn’t over and a no-deal Brexit looms large. Unemployment and hardship will become more than a speculative bogeyman but fact. Making changes to ensure young people are not floored by these huge economic shocks will reduce that scarring and build better confidence in the youth economy. But more importantly, it will give young people less anxiety and stress from the task of jobseeking. Rejection is a horrible, emotional moment — something we can’t continue enduring.

Writer. Regularly irritating. Moans about politics, Brexit, mental health, and culture. All views mine.

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