Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference elaborated her plans to ‘transform Britain into a Great Meritocracy’. She stressed the unfair division between ‘a more prosperous older generation and a struggling younger generation’. A major study has just shown that the 1980s generation are already half as wealthy as their 1970s peers.
A faltering recovery
One of the factors most damaging to young people’s income prospects is an early period of prolonged unemployment. The recessions that followed the Global Financial Crash of 2008 brought unprecedented unemployment levels amongst 16-24 year-olds in the UK. The latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) data show that the subsequent slow recovery in youth employment may be faltering. About 30 per cent of 16-17-year-olds who are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) have been recorded as unemployed over the last two years, and last month’s figures show a new high of 35 per cent (which is likely to have risen further since the summer).
But if the law was being adhered to, no-one aged 16-17 should be unemployed or NEET. The Education and Skills Act 2008 requires every 16 and 17-year-old to be in full-time education or training, or in full-time or part-time work that includes release for regular training. The one part of the parliamentary debate about the Act that triggered objections concerned the sanctions that apply to those who contravene its requirements – especially sanctions which would place them in detention centres for persistently refusing to comply. The Labour government rejected these concerns and forced the legislation through, but in 2011 the coalition government suspended the clauses which required Local Authorities and employers to monitor attendance and punish refusal. Participation remains compulsory, but it has never been enforced.
Why? Conservative and Liberal-Democrat MPs had raised high-minded objections to the Act. They argued that 16 and 17-year-olds, who are legally deemed mature enough to marry, bring up children and serve in the armed forces, should enjoy freedom of choice not to participate in any form of education or training (or work). But the coalition’s reassertion of these principles coincided conveniently with its ‘austerity’ policies: monitoring and enforcement would have been far beyond the capacities of shrunken Local Authority budgets.
The unknown status
The effects of non-enforcement have been predictable. Department for Education figures for 2015 in England show that the numbers of 17-year-olds who were known to be NEET were exceeded by the numbers of ‘not knowns’ who had in effect ‘disappeared’ from Local Authority records. Last year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee estimated that the ‘participation’ statuses of more than 100,000 16-18-year-olds were unknown.
Prioritising 16 and 17-year-olds’ supposed ‘freedom of choice’ releases the state from some long-established commitments to their welfare. This is troubling when their limited chances of getting a job, earning a genuine living wage and being able to afford somewhere to live are left to ‘the market’: the Low Pay Commission has shown that the real earnings of 16-17-year-olds fell by 17% between 2009 and 2013, and their median hourly pay fell by more than £1 to £5.03.
All in all, the youngest adults’ freedom of choice means that many of those who have gained least by way of skills and qualifications from 11 years of compulsory schooling face stark choices between unemployment, poverty-level wages and extending an unproductive school career. At this point, ‘disappearing from ‘officialdom’s’ view’ is the most rational and appealing option for many of them – one that is lent apparent legitimacy by the government’s indifference to enforcing the law that requires them to ‘participate’.
Tackling inequality justly and fairly
This version of freedom of choice is self-evidently one with tangible consequences for future financial (in)security and prospective poverty. If the current government is serious about the Prime Minister’s commitment to tackling intergenerational inequality, it must break the silent consensus which the coalition allowed to evolve between young people who believe their best option is to ‘disappear’ themselves, government departments that are content to accept their invisibility in official data, and Local Authorities that are forced to ignore it for lack of funding. Policies that veer between the ill-advised and socially unjust extremes of criminalising young people for ‘being NEET’ and colluding with it are no path to any kind meritocracy – least of all a great one.
Ross Fergusson is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at The Open University. Young people, welfare and crime is out now from Policy Press.
An extended version of this article first appeared in the on-line not-for-profit publication Discover Society, with the title: ‘Great Meritocracies Don’t “Disappear” Their Youngest Casualties, Mrs May!’.