Parents of young children may imagine that they do not need to worry about unemployment statistics for school leavers, but these figures are surprisingly relevant to anyone involved in the day- to- day business of making sure that a child goes to school.
Officially, youth unemployment across Europe (including the UK) now stands at around twenty per cent, which everyone agrees is a matter for serious concern; but enough attention is still not being paid to what this might mean for the future.
It should, of course, be unacceptable that any child should be taken from their home every day, from the age of five onwards, and put through an eleven-year school programme, if, at the end of it, there was nothing on offer for them except long-term unemployment. But unfortunately people have learned to shut their eyes to the suffering of individual children.
Something that is starting to worry people, however, is the question of what is to be done with the millions of young people across Europe who are now on the long-term unemployment register. Ideas that have been tried in the past, such as training programmes and job creation schemes are expensive, and governments do not have the money to run them on the scale that they are now required (probably an indication that they never did work).
An even more important consideration, however, particularly for parents of younger children, is the question of whether or not the real causes of youth unemployment have been understood. So far this debate has been hampered by a sense of complacency: it is a sad reflection on the state of our society that the relatively ‘well-educated’ articulate majority of parents perceive youth unemployment as a phenomenon that afflicts only the children of the poor, and as such they do not worry about it. Up until now, they have been happy to assume that well-paid professional jobs will continue to be in good supply, even when unskilled and manual jobs have dried up. Not only is this a rather unworthy way of thinking, but it will also almost certainly be proved to be wrong.
It is true that youth unemployment is now affecting the children who did badly at school very severely, but it is also true that ever-increasing numbers of other young people have been directed into university and college courses over the past few years. There is no reason to believe that they will have any more success than their contemporaries when they do officially enter the job market. In fact the more highly paid and specialised the job a young person is seeking, the less likely they are to find it.
There are discernable trends in employment patterns, and if one looks at the overall picture of work and employment over the past few hundred years, it is possible to draw some fairly obvious conclusions about the direction in which events are heading:
300 years ago almost everyone worked on the land. Hardly anyone went to school, and everyone had work to do.
250 years ago people started to move to towns to work in factories which produced things, primarily for the home market. When factories were short of orders, workers were laid off, and the concept of unemployment was created. Children started going to school, partly so that they were not in the way while their parents were at work.
100 – 200 years ago even more people left the land to produce even more factory products – which were exported to other parts of the world, principally to colonies in ‘undeveloped’ regions. Demand for factory products fluctuated widely, and in periods of recession unemployment became a serious problem. Children spent more time in school, partly because being able to read and write was seen as a useful skill in the world of employment.
50 to 60 years ago colonies started to regain their independence and the market for European manufactured goods collapsed. Europe tried to replace factory jobs with keeping children in school longer, and training people to do office work. School qualifications became vital in more and more areas of employment. Unemployment was controlled by governments pumping money into the economy when times were difficult.
30 to 40 years ago manufacturing, even of goods for the home market, was shifted overseas and more and more people found themselves working in ‘service’ industries rather than in jobs that genuinely create wealth. Increasingly, this employment has been paid for by government borrowing and house price inflation. Schools have specialised in training people for these ‘made-up’ jobs.
Today the situation is so complex that no-one fully understands how the economy works, and to what extent anyone’s job is really viable. However, youth unemployment is rising, which could be a sign that all the job creation schemes that have been keeping people busy in developed countries have now run their course.
The future: If it is true that Western countries have been living off borrowed money for the past thirty or forty years, then it is not easy to see how current employment difficulties will resolve themselves. In particular it is difficult to see any future for any of the careers for which schools prepare young people – this includes almost everything in the world of finance, banking and accountancy, the law, advertising, the printed media and the broadcast media, almost all retail activity, the arms industry and the military, the civil service, the health service, social services, schools and universities, and everything to do with politics and economics. Things that might still be useful to learn about could include how to grow things, how to make things, how to thrive on a limited budget, and how to work in a cooperative way with other people – but these are all subjects that modern schools are conspicuously bad at teaching.
Added to this, there is the point that children do not like school. If children enjoyed school, or if school genuinely broadened children’s minds, then it might still have a purpose; but for as long as anyone can remember the sole justification for school has been that it prepares children for life in the ‘real’ world. And this is used as an excuse for the bullying, the underachievement, the inequality, the mindless boredom, and the twisting of facts that takes place within its walls.
That is why all parents should be keeping a close eye on the youth unemployment figures, and why they should also be giving them a lot of careful thought: if there are no jobs for children when they leave school in five, ten, or fifteen years time, then there is absolutely no reason for sending them to school now.
© freedom-in-education 2011