The Lost Generation – the creative cost of youth unemployment

Unemployment in the UK is at the highest level since records began almost 20 years ago, with the young being hit disproportionately hard. Today, more than 20% of 16-24 year olds are currently unemployed, and the trend looks set to continue, with youth unemployment likely to exceed the 1 million mark by next month, says Reuters.

Let’s be clear: this is not simply because the youth of today are under-qualified or inherently lazy. Graduates from top-class universities are suffering too, with total graduate unemployment at its highest level for over 15 years. This means steep competition for job-seekers; in the UK it is estimated that there are around 88 applicants for every graduate position, rising to over 250 for some of the top firms.

The high youth unemployment rates in Britain have led to fears of a ‘lost generation’; periods of unemployment for a young person can stifle  lifetime earnings or place them on a less desirable career path than they would otherwise have achieved. This is a deep social tragedy, or nearly 1 million personal tragedies, that do not look set to end any time soon.

But this could also spell an innovation and sustainability tragedy. Locking the creativity and energy of youth out of the productive economy must surely come at a cost to the innovative capacity of organisations.

There is certainly much historical evidence to support the creative power of youth. Indeed, some of the most controversial scientific theories were pioneered by researchers under the age of 30; Galileo was in his 20s when he began his research on falling objects, Isaac Newton was at the tender age of 23 when he began working on calculus, Heisenberg was experimenting with quantum mechanics when he was in his 20s.

But how do these observations on the history of science translate into the innovative capacity of today’s corporations and economies? Paul Romer, a Senior Fellow of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, has a theory about this one. In an interview in ‘From Poverty to Prosperity’, Romer expresses his belief that young people are more creative and willing to take risks than older demographics, and may thus be “disproportionately important” to innovation and economic growth.

Given that the high level of youth unemployment is due to the stagnation of the national economy, this seems a rather terrible paradox, and one that must be urgently addressed. Indeed, as Samuel Johnson famously said, “youth is the time of enterprise and hope”. Getting more young people into work must therefore be a fundamental priority – not just in the interest of social equity, but in the pursuit of a more sustainable national economy.

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