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Rishi Sunak faced questions from MPs on the Commons Treasury committee this month over his budget, which combines emergency Covid support schemes with the biggest tax rises since 1993. And while it is right to question his plans to cut the £20 a week universal credit uplift after six months or find out why 39 out of 45 towns that will benefit from the £1bn new “towns fund” are represented by Tory MPs, I couldn’t help but see an obvious oversight in much of the post-budget discussion: where are the proposed policies to help young people?
Search through Sunak’s budget speech, and you’ll find not one word related to “children”, “graduates” or even “teenagers”. And while “young” did appear in relation to the touted “kickstart scheme”, it’s clear that the chancellor has little interest in the generations below him. Statistics from the Centre for Economic Performance at LSE show those aged 16 to 25 will experience worse labour market outcomes in terms of job loss, not working and earnings losses during and after lockdown. They were more than twice as likely as older employees to have suffered job losses, with six in 10 seeing their earnings fall.
Coronavirus has brought poverty, inequality, work and housing into the foreground. Amid the noise of budget-related policy change – debated by two political parties that many young people have little time for – I think of my cousin, aged 12, whose teenage years will become a baptism of fire.
“I’ve learned more watching YouTube and TikTok than I ever did at school,” she quips over Zoom. I asked her how she felt being back in an educational setting after quite a stop-start school year: “Not happy. I like learning, but I never liked school anyway. It’s a waste of time.”
Harsh, but fair, and not exactly a revelation. I remember spending much of my teenage years sulking around parks and drinking far too much. The only difference between her supposed delinquency and mine is that I had the privilege of making my dumb decisions at a youth club or at a friend’s house. The latter was snatched away for a year by the pandemic; the former by austerity politics.
But isn’t austerity for young people over? Far from it. Public spending and borrowing continues to increase for central government. But when you look at funding on a local level it is a different story. According to the National Audit Office, the vast majority of English councils (94%) expect to cut spending next year. The watchdog notes a decade of austerity for city and local government, which has reduced councils’ spending power by a third at a time when demand for services has soared. Meanwhile, the Public Accounts Committee says in a report published in January that councils have been taking on “extremely risky levels of debt in recent years” investing in commercial ventures “in an effort to shore up dwindling finances”.
This means that young people, in particular, are entering a period of “ambient austerity”. Without decent youth services, they are forced to hang around shabby town centres, aspirations are dampened and self-esteem is hollowed out. This negligence has been simmering for years. There was, for example, the 2015 budget, which ruled that anyone aged between 18 and 21 could no longer claim housing benefit; and the fact that, while higher education was free or relatively cheap for much of the political class, graduates are now left to pay a significantly higher tax rate than non-graduates (and that’s without mentioning the interest rates graduates are charged on their loans).
So what would a forward-thinking, imaginative government do to help young people? The chaos in schools in England during the pandemic should prompt us to rethink the very nature of education, which is highly quantified and dependent on exams – the perfect conditions for creating mental health crises among young people. How many schoolchildren are forced to keep their head down and pass taxing exams, only to realise in adulthood that exam grades are no longer seen as the benchmark in the workplace or in life? Schooling could be reimagined with a focus on a broader curriculum, skilful use of creativity and a greater focus on wellbeing.
Then there are graduates who are competing in a market with record redundancies, and a 23% reduction in entry-level jobs. Those who have come of age in the pandemic will be fighting with other graduates who have been job searching since the previous academic year; all are lowering their expectations. No amount of polishing CVs will solve this: the answer does not lie in being part of the debate team, going on a year abroad, or obtaining a first-class degree. It lies in substantial investment in well-paying, secure jobs in future-proof industries and in solving the housing crisis by strengthening renters’ rights and increasing the provision of social housing.
When I ask my cousin what she wants for the future she replies to me plainly: “I don’t know. Why did we get here in the first place?” And that is the point: why, again and again, do we choose to draw up the ladder for the generations after us?
Source: The Guardian
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