Youth unemployment: the proverbial white elephant

Ghost estates aren’t the only monstrocities that blight our landscape. Yes that’s right, a generation of young people who cannot find any meaningful work are degenerating en masse into a proverbial white elephant that could well leave a permanent scar on our demographic landscape.

This is an issue that is very real to my friends and I, and has been made all the more real over the last week as I cycled over 4 days through hoards of beaming parents and students milling around University Avenue off the Malone Road.

I couldn’t help but be struck by three things: firstly, I was concerned by the utter glee that oozed off all those present. Secondly, I gave thought to Class of 2007, Class of 2008, Class of 2009, Class of 2010 and Class of 2011 and a backlog of graduates who’ve been languishing on the sidelines worrying they’ve missed the boat. Then finally I was hit by Stormont inertia and the wider avoidance of the issue.

These worries are not unfounded; they are not exagerated: they are entirely sensible and grounded on hard facts.

Projected to cost £1bn by 2016, youth unemployment in Northern Ireland now stands somewhere around 20% (not accounting for Class of 2012 of course!): a rise of over 150% since the collapse of the global economy and symptomatic of a wider western malaise. Where across the 17 nation euro zone aggregate unemployment has hit 11%, and youth unemployment is lingering at a daunting 22%. However the picture gets far worse when we consider that the youth unemployment rate in Greece is at nearly 53%, at 51.5% in Spain and approaching 35% in Italy. And in the Republic 1 in 3 young men under 25 are unemployed. Across the Atlantic the US has 7 million heavily-encumbered college grads who have a monkey on their back and can’t find that first job.

I’m detracting a tad from the main plot and my primary point, but it’s necessary to paint the wider context.

The common theme for all these young people is that if they can’t shake the monkey off their back they risk lingering forever on the edges: what with skills atrophy, a decline of expectations, discouragement, disillusionment, disenfranchisement, civic alienation, substance abuse, suicide and benefits entrapment all very real and potentially irreversible problems.

Yes it is as bad as that. I should know having graduated in 2010 and yet to shake off the monkey.

There is another common and equally dangerous theme: that’s the boom for functionless degrees and even for university itself. For the first point there are many examples in hand, for, whilst not worthless, many degree titles have been become substantially devalued currencys that carry little weight in a competitive job market. As you can see in the methodologically rigourous graph below:


Ultimately the market does not need more solicitors or teachers. What it does need is IT people and engineers. More to that, it needs properly trained IT people and engineers.

My second point to that, is that the ingrained percerption that says you have failed to reach your potential if you don’t go to university is deeply damaging. It not only devalues qualifications, but it unbalances and skews the wider economy. Trades and other non-university skills are equally as important and should be equally regarded. If your a Hayekian you’d say that government intervention mucked things up there: Blair…

And back to Northern Ireland. Yes youth unemployment is worse elsewhere but that doesn’t take away from the fact that here in Northern Ireland young people are facing a lost decade and more: a very real demographic crisis and even demographic cleansing with many many young leaving for foreign markets.

Bar Farry’s ‘steps to work programme’ and a few other initiatives little is being done and a generation of irate and disgruntled young people are simmering under the wider public conscience.

Issues of parades dominate headlines and make all the noise; the Orange Order and its arcane traditions are more important sure…

Youth unemployment is not just a white elephant that blights our landscape; it’s the white elephant standing in the middle of Peter and Martin’s living room.

But this cannot stand. Youth unemployment and disillusionment cannot and must not be ignored. It must be addressed and it must be pushed further up the priority list of local newspapers. We need to understand the plight of the young person and put it in front of tv viewers and readers (does someone want to see if Mike Nesbitt wants to come live with me for a night?). If we don’t elevate the issue, we risk knocking off a huge chunk of our demographic profile – and this would hang over future generations as a social and economic drag and provide other nations with the fruits of our talented human capital.

But of course not much will be done any time soon, Stormont has clocked off for summer recess sure – Florida holiday homes are calling. That’s inspite of the fact we’re in the midst of unprecedented economic times, with a political crisis, fiscal crisis, debt, growth, demographic and every other type of crisis you can think of. Of course all these crises are compounded all the more by the Ulster Bank crisis…

I look forward to hearing what people have to say, but this is the uncensored reality coming straight from the ground.

Brian is a writer, artist, political cartoonist and legal blogger.

Actively tweeting from @brianjohnspencr. More information here: