A lost generation? The plight of the young

29 Jan 2021 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 29 Jan 2021

Pic: Unsplash

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on young people, with more than a quarter saying it has left them unable to cope with life.

This stark finding from the Prince’s Trust Youth Index which was compiled by YouGov demonstrates the scale of the challenge that a generation of young people now face.

The report also reveals that 20 per cent of young people in Northern Ireland do not feel confident about their future work. More than half (55 per cent) say it is harder to ask for employment help as “everyone needs it at the moment”. 62 per cent say that getting a new job feels impossible now because there's so much competition.

But for Mark Dougan, director of the Prince’s Trust in Northern Ireland the most poignant finding of all is that 65% feel they are “missing out on being young.”

“For me, that’s devastating. Young people are facing a disrupted education, a shrinking jobs market and social isolation from friends and loved ones. That is a triple whammy which is having a massive impact.”

The Prince’s Trust was founded on 1976 by Prince Charles using his £7,500 severance package from the Royal Navy.

Since then it has supported more than a million young people aged 11-30. Much of the work is around building confidence and skills. In Northern Ireland 84% of those helped went on to progress  into jobs, education or training.

It runs employability and enterprise programmes which are run both face to face and online which offer practical advice and financial support

The Trust has run programmes in more than half of NI’s secondary schools together with some grammars and has partners amongst small and medium-sized businesses as well as household names such as Tesco, Lidl and M&S. It has a team of 60 in Northern Ireland and last year helped 9,000 young people.

Dougan said: “We’re here for all young people, not just a single group. So that includes young people leaving care, the unemployed, those who left school  with no qualifications, those who have been in trouble with the law. We’re also seeing more and more who have gone to university and then dropped out, perhaps for mental health reasons. We’ve helped them to build back their confidence so they can return to university. ”

“We have been there for young people throughout this challenging and turbulent time. We’ve never shut our doors – in fact we’ve opened virtual doors as well – and have continued to offer support both online and face-to-face through schools and our partnerships with community groups and employers.”

Funding has come under a lot of pressure but I have to say that both European social funding and the Department of the Economy have been extremely flexible in helping to keep the show on the road. If it wasn’t for them we’d be facing a very different situation working with young people in Northern Ireland.

We were so pleased with the response that we made a Christmas video message for the department to say thank you. They had never seen anything like that before and were blown away.”

For all that welcome flexibility, the challenge ahead is immense.

A major challenge is that many of the opportunities opened up for young people have traditionally been in those sectors which were most affected by the pandemic: retail, hospitality and tourism.

Dougan said: “We are already seeing young people losing a sense of hope for the future. We all need hope and should never underestimate how important it is. Imagine how you must feel if you are young and trapped when you are supposed to be living the best years of your life.

“We can all remember the financial crash of 2008 – during that downturn young people were four times more likely to be hard hit than older ones.”

This time around the task is exacerbated because the sectors which most often offer routes into employment are themselves in deep crisis. Dougan reports that large retailers like Tesco and Lidl are continuing to work with the Prince’s Trust but high street retail opportunities have dried up.

When, or perhaps more accurately, if they come back is anybody’s guess. The pandemic has accelerated the move to online shopping – and the jobs market is consequently changing in response.

Even the big supermarkets are changing – Dougan has noted an increased need for delivery drivers and warehouse workers.

He said: “Young people coming out of the education system with fewer qualifications will miss out for longer. That for me is the challenge. We need to raise aspirations and develop pathways into new sectors like digital and health and social care.”

So what needs to happen?

Dougan says: “First we must recognise the problem.  It’s very much to stop a generation of young people giving up on their futures.”

And he is very clear about where the young people are who are most at risk.

“If you go into communities of multiple deprivation you will get large pockets of high unemployment. When it rises to 11% overall amplify that fourfold and you are just getting close. Those are the communities most in danger of being left behind.”

“So once we recognise the problem we need to look forward at what that will mean in five year’s time and where those young people will be if we do or do not act.”

“And the other thing is that people need to work together on this. The NI Executive needs the know how and experience of the public, private and voluntary sectors and local authorities if we are to prevent another youth unemployment crisis.

In that regard Mark Dougan has concerns. The JobStart scheme (due to be launched in December but subsequently delayed) unlike its English counterpart Kickstart does not involve the voluntary sector.

“This is a shame. These are challenges we need to take on. We can help speed it up and get it on the ground. It’s about partnerships and creating a very easy to understand and easy access pathway to inspire young people out of the pandemic. They need to see what it means for them.

“There’s an opportunity to do things differently, to change the debate if we can try something new.”

He said he had more success with the Department of Health.  Dougan wants to bring a scheme run by the Prince’s Trust in England to Northern Ireland. It is an attempt to solve the recruitment crisis for health and social care by moving young people into career paths in the sector.

“I’m really excited about the potential of this. There’s a sense that we can do something.”

Another important challenge is to develop career pathways into other important growth areas: the green economy, logistics and digital.

In terms of digital jobs employers are now beginning to find recruitment a challenge because the pipeline out of university is struggling to cope with demand. Filling that gap will be one way of helping young people to develop successful careers. It’s a tough task.

But Mark Dougan is confident: “It’s about raising aspirations of young people,” he says. “And the fact is that there is a real willingness amongst them to learn.”

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