Giving them hope

When McDonalds is publishing adverts standing up for young people, you know that something has gone badly wrong with how society and the big institutions of our country have been looking out for the interests of our young people.

Behind the headlines of the problems that young people face – ones which directly or indirectly the rest of us face too, the feeling that strikes me at the moment is ‘lack of hope’. One of the reasons why it strikes me so hard is because five years ago I kicked off 2006 knowing that there would be huge challenges ahead and ended up having one of the most eventful years of my life culminating on joining the Civil Service Fast Stream.

At the time I wrote a short story about what a “fantasy” 2006 would look like – my viewpoint being that if I aimed for the stars, I might get to the treetops. (As it turned out I got to the treetops but found the branches of support so weak that I ended up falling off them, but that’s another story). Halfway through that year I went out for a birthday meal with my siblings and we ended up wandering around the trendy/alt bars of the East End of London. I remember the buzz and the energy of the place pulsating through my skin, thinking ‘I want to be here!’ At the time I was based in a rudderless regional office in the civil service that was making huge cutbacks all over the place and, from my viewpoint at least the writing was on the wall if I tried to stay. Hence why I threw application after application at various departments in London for an internal transfer or promotion.

At the time, the government of the day was really sinking it’s teeth into a number of complex and complicated problems that had plagued our communities for decades. I wanted to be part of the solution – I wanted to be working at the heart of those teams taking on those huge challenges. Despite the various setbacks – especially those involving rejections following job interviews – I still recall having a mindset that was a combination of ‘This is happening for a reason!’ and ‘Come on Life, if you’re going to throw a setback at me you’re going to have to make it a better one than that!’ mindset. There was something strangely hypnotic about the whole thing – taking the various hits but not losing the hope.

When the letter came through informing me of my success at the Fast Stream Assessment Centre, I was floored by the shockwave that raced through my body – that life was never going to be the same again. The buzzing bright lights of Central London and the metropolitan elite of high fliers? You’re about to join them – on merit! It was intoxicating as it was mesmerising.

Now, compare all of that – and the emotions to what the prospects are for todays teenagers and students.

Tuition-fee debt aside, the costs of living while at university are still prohibitive – not least the rents. In 2002 I graduated with a £15,000 millstone around my neck. I shudder to think what it is like for students today.

Falling standards in public services – of which young people are inevitably heavy users. Wouldn’t it be nice to hear politicians say: “Young people, you are our future. We value you so much that we are going to ensure that we will provide public services to help nurture and grow your talents for the benefit of humankind.” What we do not need to see is this.

Friends have written about housing issues at nearly all of which affect young people as well as the rest of us. The prospect of being housed by a slum landlord (I was in my second year at university – our set of hovels were shut down by the Council at the end of that year) to not being able to afford your own place – rental or purchase because of the mess of housing markets are challenges I’ve faced too. This is why I had to move back into the house of Mum and Dad. I’m one of the ‘one in five’ graduates who have had to move back in with parents – not because it was a lifestyle choice, but because we cannot afford to do anything else.

Then there is the challenge of unemployment – one that is taking a huge toll on young people as it is for the rest of us. Who would want to be an unemployed school leaver or graduate with little work experience in this market? People I speak to these days, irrespective of the job that they are in often say how grateful they are just to have something in the way of stable employment. Unemployment is a dark cloud that is on my horizon too – as unless I can secure some sort of income by the early part of next year, I’m going to be struggling too.

People – economists especially – talk about the benefits of competition in the labour market, and how those with the most talent need to be remunerated accordingly. This issue came under the microscope following the failure of the banks where executives and some staff were seen to be being ‘rewarded for failure.’ But that issue aside, my question is around the attrition rate of those industries where for most people, the prospect of making it to the top is an extremely small one. Two industries that will be familiar to young people are those of music and professional football. Anyone given a thought about all of those young boys and men who spend years in football academies only to be thrown on the scrapheap like a used contraceptive? Can you imagine how devastating it must be for someone at the age of 20 to be told that everything he has worked towards for half of his life now counts for nothing?

I think our country – our world – is better than this. I think our society can treat our young people – all of our people – far more humanely.


…But I question the ability, competence and calibre of many of the leaders across our institutions to turn things around.

In the run up to the last general election, I could not recall a single major politician who gave me anything in the way of a positive vision of what they were working towards. In recent years, I cannot recall a single politician – perhaps with the exception of Obama in the run up to his election – who was able to articulate the challenges that we all face and give some leadership on how we were going to tackle them.

While the firestorms of #HackGate and the riots have occupied newspaper front pages, another financial crisis has been rumbling along. @Frances_Coppola and @RichardJMurphy via their blogs Coppola Comment and The Tax Research Blog respectively are far more authoritative on this subject than I am so consult them for the details.

That aside, what has struck me is the impotence of the global political elite to deal with the crises that we are facing. My earlier blogpost titled History vs Economics briefly alluded to this.  I’m not saying World War I will break out, but it was just under 100 years ago that royal rulers, politicians and diplomats of the world were all on holiday when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the elites of the day were unable to stop the world from tumbling into armageddon.

It’s not just young people in the UK – the rest of Europe has been struggling too. The eyes of European institutions have been on the bailouts and the Eurozone. The plight however of the unemployed – and in particular the young unemployed has been conspicuous by its absence on the agendas and in the reports that come from Europe.

Which of our politicians is going to recognise the catastrophe that our young people face?

Which of our politicians is going to articulate a positive vision for the future and a sound roadmap of how to get there?

Which of our politicians is going to step up to the podium and enact that roadmap, take on the challenges that lie ahead and face down the vested interests that will throw obstacle after obstacle in their way?

If you meet a senior politician – of any political party, feel free to ask them:

  • What is your vision for the future – the next 5–10 years?
  • What hope can you give us for the future given the problems we are facing?
  • Inspire me – why are you the person to take the lead in your policy area to take on the challenges that lie ahead?

Because if none of our politicians are willing or able to stand up for those who are the future of all of us, why should any of our young people – or the rest of us – give them the time of day?


6 thoughts on “Giving them hope

  1. I spend my working days with the young people of the borough I work in; my non-working hours with my children and their friends. Our young people are their own best hope – and ours. I see much despair in the headlines – and I know that it is real, but the (mythical) Department of Making Hope Possible is full of bright, sparky, funny, questioning, hopeful, ambitious young people who have all that it takes to make the world a better place. What they need is for us world-weary grown-ups to give them an occasional leg-up, to stop squashing them, to support their endeavours. Among them are young people who are particularly vulnerable. They need pur trust, our protection and our support while they learn and grow too. Their potential is just as great as their peers.

  2. I think when you are looking at leaving University with £50k debt then really it is hardly surprising that young people will struggle to get to university. This is not £50k to the middle class or rich (serious enough) but £50k to the poor – an unimaginable mountain of debt. We know that social mobility is almost at zero. Therefore as Andy Burnham suggest you will die in the bed in the postcode where you are born. Escape is not possible. Statistical reality. As such hope is a difficult emotion to capture. Finding your way out is like steering a paper aeroplane through a hurricane.

  3. Well done, Awful Hamlet, for completely ignoring the progressive way the student loan scheme will actually work. For all the rights and wrongs of the new possibility it is irresponsible to be propagating misleading myths about it, killing aspiration further.

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