Covid is just the latest blow to young peoples’ prospects. What’s now needed is imagination from Governments at all levels so Scotland really can be the best place to grow up in.
Ross Newton writes about what we can do to deliver more opportunities for young Scots ahead of a report by Our Scottish Future on youth unemployment.
Young people are facing a jobs crisis. The sky is blue. Water is wet. For young people of my generation, it was ever thus.
For while the pandemic has highlighted serious inequalities, caused some, exacerbated others and thrown petrol on the pyres of change , these pyres have been burning constantly over the last few years, sometimes smouldering, other times with blazing ferocity. We are, right now, approaching the latter.
There is a dangerous laissez faire attitude to the crisis facing young people today; an acceptance that our life chances have suffered due to the pandemic, but a peculiar sense of it all being rather temporary and that things will inevitably “right” themselves when the pandemic blows over. This couldn’t be more wrong, and despite their big words it unfortunately seems to be the default position of our political class.
“Covid has changed the world” is the reassuring political battle cry. And it has, from the mundane mask wearing to the sci-fi idea of a society working and socialising exclusively online. But no sooner have those words left the mouths of politicians are they back arguing about the old certainties. (As I write, a row over Scottish independence is on the front pages). Or possibly even worse, they discuss how to mitigate the change that has been ushered in. Resisting change is akin to trying to keep the tide out. We need to begin understanding and shaping it, because it will bring opportunities as well as serious challenges. The job market facing young people today, and the next generation, will be unlike any in human history.
Education must change to prepare young Scots for a changed world.
The sudden switch to remote working – previously mooted as impossible – seems here to stay in some format. This has obvious benefits that many workers have rightly enjoyed and taken advantage of. However, it also has serious advantages for businesses who can dispense with expensive costs such as offices. The logical next step is for businesses to cut costs even further and in this globalised, interconnected world where offices are redundant, that means employees can be anywhere in the world. A business hiring two similarly qualified people for a remote job has every chance of picking the employee who doesn’t require a pension and has less pesky working rights. To put it simply, the labour market for anyone with a job that can now be done remotely has just increased exponentially, almost overnight. A report by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has estimated that as a consequence of this, 5.9 million British jobs are at risk, or 18% of the UK’s workforce. These are middle class, professional jobs that young people will be training for in colleges and universities right now. For people such as myself, who have been fortunate enough to work through the pandemic, we may soon find that the promotion we were aiming for goes to someone better qualified in France, and our job to someone in Malaysia. That change is here, now. Blair’s report likens this coming impact to the loss of manufacturing work in the 1980s. Something that happened before I was born, but the effects of which are still felt today. Government needs to begin figuring out how to address this and how it will impact young people’s future aspirations, which is why an urgent holistic approach is required.
It is not just the offshoring of previous “safe” careers that young people need to contend with. In the years to come as the tech revolution fully begins to kick in, we will see the loss of traditional jobs such as taxi drivers, lorry drivers and delivery drivers as autonomous vehicles and drones reach maturity. However, looming over the horizon there will also be another; the growth of artificial intelligence (AI). This will enable many current jobs to be automated. To contend with this, Scottish education has to be reimagined, to empower and prepare young people for the world they are going to enter. This means a focus on STEM subjects but also on art and creativity. The currencies of the future will be creativity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship, these intrinsically human skills that cannot be replicated by mere machines. Indeed, young people are increasingly creative, often creating social media videos in minutes with new technology that would have taken hours in previous years. They create their own businesses in seconds and make money through social media websites that didn’t even exist when they were born. Schools need to augment their teaching with computers and technology, not treat them as a Covid aberration. I look back to learning French in high school. A teacher who clearly didn’t want to be there, armed with tatty old textbooks filled with the bored doodles of previous generations and a tape (yes a tape in 2012) that instructed us in the most monotone Scottish voice possible. I can think of no reason why schools today shouldn’t be utilising language learning apps with their immersive technology or even now entering a partnership with French schools that allow pupils to Zoom and speak to each other. I know what I would have preferred.
Where is the Government backing for decent skills and jobs?
In the here and now urgent government action is required to combat youth unemployment. Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that 80% of jobs lost belonged to the under-35s. Young people were also more likely to be furloughed as they work in sectors that were shuttered, such as hospitality. There are also important regional variations, with the claimant count in Aberdeen soaring 112% in a year for 18-24 year olds. This is completely unsustainable and it illustrates how a smart, targeted approach is required. The crisis facing young people should be the primary concern of everyone as we are the next generation of taxpayers who will fund public services and support an ageing population. If the young suffer, eventually the rest of society will too.
However, the Scottish Government’s Youth Guarantee is failing young Scots. Loaded with ambition, it is clunky, misfiring and anonymous. It is too slow to address problems that need faced today and it is bogged down with bureaucracy. It needs to be more agile and targeted, dispensing with any ideology, cutting through red tape and working to secure the buy in of the private sector. To have any chance of success the Youth Guarantee has to span the full spectrum of the public and private sector, but unfortunately it seems that government hasn’t done enough to engage. Too much talk and not enough getting shit done. To a young person who is out of work, scrolling through Indeed and seeking the skills and confidence to re-enter the job market after a long, dark year, hearing government ministers talk about a “Youth Guarantee” must seem like a bad joke. The only thing it has guaranteed is its anonymity amongst those who need it most.
We can’t just limply accept we’re going to be worse off than our parents.
However young people have to rise to this challenge. We are the most online generation ever. We have access to an incredible amount of information and we need to become better at holding our politicians to account and challenging them to deliver for us. For too long young people have been seen as irrelevant, as parties race to secure everyone else’s vote, safe in the knowledge that young people won’t bother to vote, or will vote for a particular party regardless of record. I hope and believe that is changing, but participation alone isn’t enough. We have to let politicians know that we are engaged, watching and prepared to use the power of the ballot box to register our discontent when action fails to match the rhetoric. But that also requires a change in mentality on our part. We are in serious danger of limply accepting that we will be the first generation to be worse off than our parents, that home ownership is a dream for many and that retirement seems like a quaint idea from a bygone age. We can’t allow ourselves to accept this, we need to expect and demand so much more. Not tomorrow, not a year from now, but today.
Change is coming. In some ways it’s already here lurking unnoticed. If our politicians can work together, making it their national mission to tackle the myriad of challenges but also the wealth of opportunities facing young people now and in the future, then young people in Scotland can be at the forefront of new technologies, ideas and industries. We need serious investment in training and co-operation between governments of all colours and the public and private sectors to tackle unemployment today, re-skill for the future and deliver the opportunities that young people deserve. Good, secure, well paid jobs with a good work-life balance needs to be a reality, not a fantasy. Anything less and government will have failed young people. It really is time to make Scotland the best country to grow up in.