It’s not a great time to be a young person in Europe. Spanish youth unemployment is an eye watering fifty percent. Young Greeks and Irish are clambering for the boats, and a generation of bright young things are leaving their homelands for the hope of something better elsewhere.
Britain too is facing a crisis in youth unemployment, but in a different way to that of our continental cousins. There are jobs out there…just the wrong kind.
When pollsters ask people what they think is important, education usually ranks in the top five. This is unsurprising as we are genetically hard wired to want the best for our offspring. It must therefore warm our hearts that higher education is no longer the preserve of those with the highest intellect and the deepest pockets. Britain’s young, we are told, have been liberated.
Yet there is an awkward truth lingering at the heart of this egalitarian ideal.
There simply aren’t enough graduate jobs to go around. The unpalatable fact is that a generation of young people are going to university under the illusion that as sure as night follows day, a better life awaits them on the other side.
The fundamental problem is one of numbers; there are too many people with a degree for it to be special. A bachelors degree today equivalent to an A Level ten years ago; nice to have, but hardly an earth shattering achievement. What’s worse, a degree can now count against you. If you’re a graduate applying for a low level admin job, a potential employer will think twice about employing you. Sure, you’re clever, even hard working, but the perception is that you’ll bolt the second something better comes along. Why invest six months of costly training and mentoring in somebody who is simply there to pay the bills till that real job comes along? Far safer to opt for a school leaver who is grateful for the opportunity and will stay for years.
How did we get here?
Parents and teachers have to take the bulk of the blame for this. However this wasn’t through malice or spite, but rather a sort of benevolent ignorance.
When the parents and teachers of today’s graduates were in their twenties, the world was a very different place. It was comparatively rare for somebody to go to university, especially somebody from a Working or Middle Class background. And with the rarity came an aura. A graduate was something special, something scarce. It didn’t matter what they studied, there mere fact that they went to university immediately set them above regular mortals. Businesses snapped them up. Galling as it may seem to today’s jobless graduates, those were days when you could study Medieval Art History and walk into a middle management job at a national haulage firm. You were a graduate; that was all that mattered.
Hardly surprising then that today’s parents look upon university with something akin to rose tinted glasses. In their minds, university is still a golden ticket; it doesn’t matter what you do or where you go, just make sure you GO….the rest will fall into place. Honest.
The second factor in the creation of the rudderless graduate is linked to the first, but broader in its blame. For thirty years children have been brought up on the idea that higher education was open to all, and that by extension, jobs that required a higher education were the only ones worth having. An unfortunate side effect of this mindset is the belief that all other jobs are somehow beneath us.
For our grandparent’s generation no job was off limits; having a steady job was something to be proud of. Manual and skilled labourers were respected. They may not be wealthy, but they had a craft, they did it well, and society benefited from this range of skills.
For many of today’s young, doing a job that requires sweat and/or a uniform is tantamount to a human rights violation. Even leaving aside labour intensive roles, should we be surprised that people brought up on the promise of the instant gratification of a graduate salary balk at having to work in entry level roles?
Working for five years in admin support on £14k a year when you have an aeronautical engineering degree? This is the reality for thousands of young people, but nobody is talking about it.
Unless you are studying a for specialist degree, plan to go into teaching, or have connections, university can be a very expensive three year jolly.
Does this matter, you might ask? Isn’t it better to have a shelf stacker with a degree than one without? Well, no. A university education is more than just a qualification. It’s an aspirational statement of intent.
Going to university is meant to be the gateway to the life style of a young professional, with everything that comes with it. For large numbers of young Briton’s, the reality is very different. Some will stay in the city of their graduation and look for what ever work they can get. Oh, they don’t plan to stay in the role long of course, just until something in their field comes up…yeah right.
Others will skulk back home, to their childhood bedroom, with their mum making their food and their dad telling them to keep the noise down. It’s as if the teenage years never happened.
For youngsters who hoped to have a better life than their parents, it must be humiliating.
This is not meant to be a rallying cry against university. I wish every success to those who are at university or are planning to go. All I ask is that you be realistic about what will follow.