It’s that time again, folks: the tri-annual “unemployed young people are job snobs” festival. Pull on your wellies so we can all squelch in the mud of the same old nonsensical, prejudiced accusation. This time it comes from the employment minister, Esther McVey, who says young people must be prepared to lower their ambitions to get on in their careers. “You could be working at Costa,” she helpfully suggests, adding that young Britons are less prepared for the world of work than foreign migrants and “need to learn the basics”, such as turning up on time.
I wouldn’t want to be in McVey’s shoes right now – I’d rather work at Costa, as baristas don’t have to open the papers every morning and read about what a terrible job they’re doing. Instead, McVey is presiding over the highest youth unemployment levels since 1993: 941,000 people aged between 16 and 24 are out of work, 282,000 of whom have been jobless for a year or more. Her solution? Deflect the blame from the government, tap into the nation’s ageism and blame unemployed young people.
I take issue with this. To begin with, “young Britons don’t turn up on time” is quite a generalisation for a group several million strong. Can you really gauge a person’s timekeeping abilities by how recently they were born? Perhaps the assertion that foreign migrants are better prepared for the world of work has more to do with the fact that the desperation that sent them thousands of miles from home makes them easier to exploit, underpay and overwork.
This may come as a shock, but there aren’t 941,000 jobs going at Costa Coffee. Unemployment is soaring because demand for jobs exceeds availability. To hear McVey, you’d think the coffee chain was understaffed, managers bleating desperately for applications, tumbleweed blowing over the espresso machines. Yet a new branch of Costa in Mapperley, Nottingham, received 1,701 applications for eight positions after advertising in early December. I don’t know who got the jobs, but the coffee must be amazing.
McVey said jobseekers must be reminded that they have to “start at the bottom and work their way up”, rather than “expecting to walk into their dream job”. How fantastically patronising. Walking into our dream job is hardly an expectation in today’s intern-eat-intern world of work. That said, don’t tart up working at Costa as “starting at the bottom”, as if it’s a career move. Unless you’re going into coffee shop management, it isn’t. “Starting at the bottom” implies you’re at the foot of a ladder you intend to climb. Call it what it is: a low-paid stop-gap, a way to survive financially without benefits while chipping our way into the industry we’re actually qualified for – something plenty of young people are doing.
Also, we already started at the bottom. Our parents and teachers asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, and held it to ransom. We spent countless hours in meaningless exams: GCSEs, AS-levels, A-levels, BAs, MAs, even PhDs; not forgetting the unpaid internships (yet another barrier between us and employment) – because these were sold as tickets to where we wanted to go.
And now we’re snobs for wishing those miserable years had paid off. At this juncture, the only honest thing a politician could say about youth unemployment is: “We messed up the economy, you will not be getting what we promised you’d get in exchange for the years spent becoming educated, qualified and willing.”