Coronavirus

Young, unemployed and out of hope – how to change a broken system

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This article is part of a series exploring job-hunting in the pandemic and the difficulties that face young people in particular. The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole. To find out more about the campaign and how you can contribute, click here.

As the economy begins to adapt to an anxious world, young people face a grim prospect for the future. The post-coronavirus landscape brings huge challenges for businesses and employees alike. Young people are facing the brunt of this situation. It’s their low-paid, unstable economy on the line.

The IFS reported back at the start of April how young people were at most risk from both lockdown and this resulting recession. An extensive report published later that month by Impetus also reported on the troubles ahead for young workers. The results revealed a dangerous situation for young people, characterised by already built-in inequalities in the job system. This received little attention within the first lockdown’s tidal wave of woe.

A concept which has regularly appeared in reports is ‘scarring’, a way to describe the impact of economic and social challenges on young people which may impact future job progression. 

It’s no surprise that coronavirus will cause immense scarring to young workers, added to more poverty which is increasing demand on food banks and charity services. Impetus also reports on how young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are more at risk of this effect.

The work being touted as essential for the economy to recover, namely retail and leisure, are more likely to be staffed by young people on low-paid shift work. 

Without better representation, young people are often sucked into roles which do not give them a fair deal. The minimum wage is not enough to cover economic necessities, especially travel and living costs, while younger workers are paid less for doing the same job.

Shockingly, an apprentice worker is only earning £4.15 an hour – labour that is being leaned on both economically and politically.

The think-tank Resolution Foundation, as well as Impetus, have urged more action to counteract the coming shock of mass unemployed youth. Their freshly-established Youth Employment Group brings together sector interest in helping young people through the recession.

Schemes incorporating education at all levels, apprenticeships, better access to work and work coaches are all good prospects which will ensure some benefit and weather the storm. 

A joint letter from the YEG’s think tanks, charities and industry partners was sent to Downing Street asking for an employment guarantee to ensure young people’s futures are better-assisted post-lockdown. The letter argued that “An Opportunity Guarantee must be at the heart of the Government’s solution to kickstarting economic growth for all, across our communities.”

But young people already face a brick wall due to the unfair system of applications which employers use. It is not a universal system; there are always differences between each place of work. 

You could apply for a job in a major retailer, who asks you to complete an application form, CV, cover letter, thirty-minute aptitude test, group interview (if you’re lucky) and final face-to-face interview (if you’re really lucky). Whereas, a salaried employer for an office job may only want your CV. This lack of consistency makes applying for jobs a much harder task than it needs to be.

Standardised applications across all sectors would make young people’s task a little easier. The same goes for employers’ attitudes to the applicants themselves. 

Instead of treating every beleaguered person as numbers and letters on a spreadsheet, employers have to start engaging with applicants more directly and with more empathy. A slight mistake on a CV is a fate worse than death – the waste bin. Shouldn’t a conscientious employer reach out to an applicant with advice?

Employers should be legally obligated to give firm reasoning, advice and justification for every application rejected. An employer who simply casts the application aside without a word or with a pathetic stock line about ‘high demand’ is failing to give applicants a better chance of employment in the future. Their lack of care is a depressing symptom of a system that doesn’t listen.

To face so much rejection if your CV isn’t up to scratch, or from simple lack of advice, is a crippling drain on a person’s morale which is always in low supply if you’re unemployed. If you get a reply to an email, regardless of its content you’ve practically hit the jackpot.

This lack of engagement with applicants goes further still into the interview stage. Only one in five people ever reach the face-to-face interview, and if we multiply this to fit a very attractive role there is potential for hundreds of downhearted people. 

Again, this uncaring voice which may (or may not bother to) reject an applicant rarely offers any advice in the application. It’s a brick wall that will be built up higher and higher with the government requiring more of employers throughout the recovery.

Why does this all matter? Young people are at the start of their lives, perhaps still unsure about where to go and what to do. To begin a journey with so much rejection and disappointment over failed job applications translates into scarring for future prospects.

Cynicism builds after such a negative experience with work, and this is only amplified by the result being a low-paid job without support, potentially in a workplace they didn’t really want to join. Education matters too, as young people without A-level or degree qualifications are more at risk from this experience.

Structural change at this level is so simple but pushed away with ‘competitive market’ jargon. The advice young people receive is not fit for this age. We can’t walk down the high street handing out CVs to shops and cafes. Job Centre appointments bring their own heap of trouble, namely the threat of sanctions from the DWP. 

It’s impossible to discuss any opportunities without being told to go online – the place where we dwell, forever scrolling and scrolling. It’s a kneejerk response with such little engagement with the people an employer hopes to attract.

Some simple fixes for a punitive system: legislate a requirement for employers from all sectors and sizes to establish better engagement with applicants. This has to be personalised, not with basic ‘reply to all’ emails. Applicants must be told why they were not successful at all levels, especially at interview. 

Giving constructive feedback should be mandatory and subject to external reviews. Building a standardised application system across all sectors would ensure applicants aren’t just wasting their time on paperwork when the outcome would likely be the same.

This isn’t handing power over or destabilising any ancient rites of capitalism, it’s about protecting against young people being constantly let down, and employers failing to provide a responsible, empathy-driven service to potential employees.

Coronavirus isn’t over and a damaging Brexit is just around the corner. Our hardship won’t be resolved naturally. Making changes to ensure young people are not floored by these huge economic shocks will reduce that scarring and build better confidence in the youth economy. 

But more importantly, it will give young people less anxiety and stress from the task of job seeking. Rejection is a horrible, emotional moment, and it’s something we can’t continue to endure.

Cover image via Pikrepo. Licence can be found here.

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