Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19

Young people, jobs and the impact of COVID-19 

Gathering the evidence 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, a number of reports and other papers have appeared over the last few weeks all wholly or in part focused on the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people’s employment prospects. 

Young workers in the coronavirus crisis

This Resolution Foundation report published towards the end of May [1] found for example that:

  • One-third of 18-24 year old employees (excluding students) have lost their jobs or been furloughed, compared to one-in-six prime-age adults
  • 35 per cent of non-full-time student 18-24 year old employees are earning less than they did prior to the outbreak … compared with 23 per cent of 25-49 year olds

Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis

Linked to this report was an earlier Resolution Foundation paper [2] focused more on the effects of previous recessions on young people. It for example highlighted that

…for several years after having left education, employment rates across the cohorts that left education during the financial crisis were lower than for those who left education after it – with non-graduates experiencing the largest and longest scarring effects. Graduate ‘recession leavers’ experienced substantial hits too, but more in terms of being stuck in lower-skilled jobs than being out of work altogether. And for several years, both groups had lower hourly pay than their counterparts who left education after the recession. 

Covid-19 and social mobility

Though something of a contentious concept, ‘social mobility’ is used in this report from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) and the London School of Economics (LSE) [3] to highlight how the pandemic ‘has exacerbated existing inequalities defined by income, place, health and ethnicity’[4]. With the young emerging as one of the groups ‘disproportionately affected’, it points to ‘a strong link between a country’s level of income inequality and intergenerational immobility’ and to how ‘real wage stagnation has particularly hit younger Britons’. 

It also provides some important reminders about the pre-pandemic situation – that:

  • Britain already had a ‘booming gig economy (which) has created millions of jobs … with low incomes and lacking security, progression or rights’ on which young people especially were often reliant.
  • Even those ‘disadvantaged’ young people who do go to university may find that those ‘disadvantages’ are not only ignored while they are there but become further entrenched. 

Reflecting on the evidence: some implications for practice 

The evidence and analysis of these three papers provide some relevant prompts for reflecting critically on the findings of a fourth report – the final evaluation of the government’s Youth Engagement Fund [5] – even though this, published in March, had clearly been drafted well before the Covid-19 crisis hit. The YEF programme had been launched in 2014 with funding of £10 million from the Office for Civil Society, £5 million from the Department for Work and Pensions and £1 million from the Ministry of Justice. Its aims included improving the ‘employability’ of young people classified as ‘disadvantaged’. 

The programme’s design had three defining features which, as we shall see later, had their own impacts on the face-to-face practice:

  • The four projects which implemented the programme were defined as ‘a social investor … seeking social impact in addition to financial return’ and so funded through ‘Social Investment Bonds (SIBs). 
  • The SIBs assumed a process of ‘payment by results’ – defined as ‘… the practice of paying providers for delivering public services based wholly or partly on the results that are achieved’.
  • Those results (or ‘outcomes’) were then defined as ‘…what changes for an individual as the result of a service or intervention. For example, improved learning in school, better mental health.

Though not reflected in this conception of ‘results’ as largely individualised change, the programme sought also to enable ‘schools, academies, local authorities, colleges and others to use their resources more effectively to support disadvantaged young people and reduce the number of young people who become NEET’. With some reservations, the evaluation concluded that this had been achieved by, for example, ‘provid(ing) schools with a solution for the young people they were struggling with’ and ‘offer(ing) a “refreshing” alternative to the pre-established support they had lost faith in’.

Interventions aimed at prompting even these kinds of limited institutional change were not however made explicit in the report’s summary of the programme’s methodology. For each of the projects this focused wholly on direct work with individual young people, albeit sometimes within their family or peer group contexts:  

  • group meetings, individualised tutoring and careers coaching and sign-posting
  • … individualised action plans … which could include resilience training, coaching, employability support, the completion of qualifications and sign-posting to other specialised provision’
  • … a range of tailored in- and out-of-school activities supported through a personal career coach, including volunteering, skills and enrichment activities, group work, employment integration activities, youth applied positive psychology and work with the young person’s family.
  • personal mentor(ing) over an extended time-period, as well as group work, skills development, enrichment activities, work experience opportunities and spot purchasing of specialist support. 

It was in implementing these face-to-face approaches that the payment-by-results funding framework could clearly at time be constraining or even obstructive. Comments from the practitioners interviewed for example included:

You always have to bear in mind that you’re doing this for an outcome, so you’re limited in what you can do. So the support you want to give, you have to say no because you don’t have time to do that.

It’s not necessarily in the young person’s interest – we’re working to the outcome not the individual…It’s like selling windows sometimes.

More fundamentally, the programme’s overwhelming focus on the individual young person as the primary if not the only focus for change left unaddressed some key broader questions. 

  • If improving young people’s ‘employability’ is a main goal, and if more widely it is their ‘disadvantage’ which acts as a significant obstacle to their achieving this, might not the causes of their labour market problems go beyond their individual limitations or family dysfunction – or even some localised institutional shortcomings?
  • In the light of the evidence on how the coronavirus crisis has exposed and indeed exacerbated already entrenched and interlinked structural inequalities, don’t policy interventions now needed also to be focused on these including, in relation to young people’s ‘employability’, the dominant values, priorities and ways of operating of the labour market itself? 

The need for such thinking is further supported by one of the Resolution Foundation papers which points to the limitations – even often the irrelevance – of policy responses based on individualised notions of ‘disadvantage’. While acknowledging that some young school-leavers ‘lack basic numeracy and literacy skills, with few specific job destinations in their plans’, the paper is also explicit that ‘the population of unemployed young people will be diverse indeed’. It points out, for example, that some ‘may have left education with an apprenticeship or a career destination in mind, only to find their sector of choice in severe contraction’[6]. And this before you even begin to try to fit all those ‘graduate recession leavers …stuck in lower-skilled jobs’ into policy-makers’ dominant conceptions of ‘disadvantage’. 

Significantly – and refreshingly – far from skirting round these kinds of questions, the YEF evaluators were clear that wider systemic barriers affect a young person’s place and progress through the labour market. They, for example, pointed out that ‘Aside from educational and personal difficulties, structural risk factors (emphasis in the original)can notably increase the risk of (young people) becoming NEET’. And they concluded that: 

The projects paid limited focus to external factors that might also impact on NEET rates, such as the quality of the local employment market… Towards the end of the projects, the service providers reflected that they should have done more work to engage employers, and encourage them to provide more apprenticeships and/or be more open to recruiting more disadvantaged young people. 

In support of this conclusion, the evaluation went on to recommend that programme interventions of this kind need to ‘provide more holistic support, focusing on support that addresses the wider and more structural factors that contribute to NEET prevalence’, including a greater focus on employers 

And in response?

How far then have current policy interventions given attention to these kinds of messages with their at least implied advocacy of more radical responses to young people’s labour market struggles? 

A ‘National Youth Cohort… 

Launched in an open letter in The Observer signed by twelve people describing themselves as having ‘experience of working with young people’, this initiative quoted evidence that ‘30% of university students have lost their job or offer of a job’ and that ‘one in three (young people) is receiving less pay than they were in January’[7]. Its base-line conviction is that the COVID-19 generation ‘can be transformed into a powerful engine to create a UK that is “more innovative more economically dynamic, but also more generous and more sharing” [8]. To tap into this potential it proposes that the government to set up a ‘National Youth Corps’ which, ‘in effect’, would offer ‘a work guarantee’ to all 16-25 year olds who apply by ‘guarantee(ing) at least the minimum wage in a wide variety of work and training opportunities…’ ‘Employers and institutions’ would also have the choice ‘to offer a top-up wage for particular skills’.

Seen as ‘crucial’ to the programme – predicted to attract up to a million applications – is its aim to ‘embed Britain’s most ambitious ever mentoring capability’. Through this, ‘Youth Corps members will be guided and supported to acquire the knowledge, network, skills, experience and confidence they need to succeed in this “new normal”’ and so ‘ensure that young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are able to fully participate and benefit from the scheme’. The letter asks a wide range of ‘British-based employers’ to ‘pledged a range of job offers depending on their financial circumstances’, with ‘third sector organisations that specialise in working with young people … eligible for tailored investment to enable them to build capacity to participate in the programme’.

With the government urged to ‘announce its intent to create the Youth Corps along with the necessary funding as soon as possible’, by late June over 2150 of a targeted 2500 people had signed a petition supporting the proposal.        

… a ‘Civic Army’

At about the same time a second proposed initiative came from the UPP Foundation [9] – a body which gives grants to universities, charities and other higher education bodies. Backed in this case by a ‘coalition of youth work groups’ with some overlap with the Open Letter signatories, it stresses that ‘the (pandemic’s) economic and educational impacts on young people go much further than immediate issues of school closures’ and includes ‘the job market for young people disappearing (and) apprenticeship(s) … plummeting’. However, given what it calls the ‘disruption to university terms’, it particularly focuses on the need for universities to work ‘collaboratively’ to support young people so that they ‘engage with, or remain in, higher education’ – a goal to be achieved, it suggests, through ‘tutoring or catch up academic support, or other pastoral provision’. 

Graduating to a Civic Army? Ta to hrmmagazine,

The UPP proposes that to provide these services a ‘Civic Army’ be established,  described as a ‘Community Leadership Academy scheme’. Costing £500 million a year, this would create 75,000 six-month paid placements for work in communities which, though open part-time to university students, would again particularly target ‘disadvantaged’ young people. The offer would also include ‘20% off-the-job support for (young people’s) own development…’ and ‘additional Pupil Premium funding for wrap around support’. 

… and more government ‘gesture policies’?

Though neither of these initiatives attracted any explicit response from government, some of its own policy proposals focused specifically on the youth labour market and the pandemic’s impacts on it. In a speech on June 30th the Prime Minister flagged up an intention to introduce an ‘opportunity guarantee’ to provide young people with an apprenticeship or an in-work-placement ‘so that they maintain the skills and confidence they need to find the job that is right for them’[10]. More detail on this came from the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on July 8th in his summer statement to Parliament. In this he acknowledged that ‘young people bear the brunt of most economic crises, but they are at particular risk … because they work in the sectors disproportionately hit by the pandemic’. He also recognised that their experience of unemployment would have ‘long-term impact on jobs and wages’. 

The most substantial of Sunak’s proposals for dealing with these threats was to establish a job creation scheme, to start in the autumn with £2 billion funding. This will enable employers to offer six-month placements or jobs to 350,000 18-24 year olds ‘claiming universal credit and at risk of long-term unemployment’. With employers again able top it up, the funding will, for a 25-hour-week, cover 100 per cent of the minimum wage – that is, for apprentices £4.15 an hour and for 16-17 year olds £4.55 an hour. (The current adult minimum wage is £8.70). 

The Chancellor’s statement also promised:

  • An extra £111 million in the current year for tripling participation in traineeships for 16-24 year olds in England with a view to funding ‘high quality work placements and training’.
  • For six months from August, a new £2,000 payment to employers in England for each new apprentice they hire aged under 25. This will be in addition to the £1,000 already available for new 16-18 year-old apprentices.
  • For the 2020-21 academic year £101 million to enable 18-19 year olds in England who are having difficulties finding a job to study on ‘targeted high value Level 2 and 3 courses’. 

Extra money is also to be allocated to a range of support and advisory services for job seekers [11].

But… the ‘absences’

When looked at from a young person’s perspective, proposals like these can’t simply be dismissed as irrelevant. Why in the emerging ‘new normal’ might a 16 year old school-leaver not look favourably on an apprenticeship or even a temporary job which pays the minimum wage (plus perhaps an employer top-up and an additional Premium Payment) and which may even offer some time off for training? Or an 18 year old who’s been working towards getting into university for two years or more not welcome extra support and advice to make that happen? 

And yet, once again policy responses like these focus mainly on providing limited (and indeed mostly temporary) forms of individualised support. They therefore do little if anything to address those ‘wider and more structural factors’ which the YEF evaluation identified as underpinning what it called ‘NEET prevalence’. They also miss important more positive priorities – and opportunities. 

Thus, as the chancellor made explicit, the government’s main priority is not to refocus or reorient the labour market in any radical way but to ‘kickstart’ it so that it again begins to operate in its historic ways. The references in the Observer Open Letter to ‘green initiatives’, ‘infrastructure improvements’ and an ‘industrial strategy’ do suggest some significant trigger points for more far-reaching aspirations. However, by getting merely glancing and unexplained mention within a diverse list of suggested routes for implementing its suggested ‘Youth Cohort’ scheme, their potential for seeking more fundamental structural changes is left entirely unexplored. Similarly, while repeatedly endorsing ‘the renewed civic action inspired by the crisis’, the UPP proposal has nothing to say on how this bottom-up upsurge of collective energy and enterprise might be converted into permanent jobs for young people (and indeed others) focussed not on private profit but on radical social (again including green) regeneration.

For thousands the often tragic personal consequences of this moment of major rupture to our society’s everyday activities and relationships are stark. Moreover, as the emerging evidence is also revealing, the age dimensions of the fall out highlighted in the piece are as ever closely interwoven with inequalities of class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and region. And yet, from an economic perspective, this moment has also been described in more positive terms – as for example ‘the most benign borrowing environment imaginable to invest in the future’ [12]. By breaking decisively with that neo-liberal ‘payment by (financial) results’ mind-set, could it also therefore be used to pursue more strategic and systematic aims? Such as an assault on a labour market which, for young people particularly, has always be constraining and often exploitative and which the pandemic is threatening to make even less accommodating?


For some heartfelt accounts of the pandemic’s personal effects on young people see Sirin Kale, ‘The class of Covid-19: meet the school-leavers facing an uncertain future’, Guardian, 16 July

Bernard Davies July 2020


1 Maja Gustafsson, 2020, Young workers in the coronavirus crisis, Resolution Foundation, May

2 Kathleen Henehan, 2020, Class of 2020: Education leavers in the current crisis, Resolution Foundation, May

3 Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin, 2020, Covid-19 and social mobilityCentre for Economic Performance/LSE, May

4 See also for example Denis Campbell, 2020, ‘Racism contributed to disproportionate UK BAME coronavirus deaths, inquiry finds’, Guardian, 14 June

5 John Ronicle and Kate Smith, March, 2020, Youth Engagement Fund Evaluation: Final Report

6 Kathleen Henehan, 2020, p 6

7 Will Hutton and others, 2020,

8, 2020, ‘Support the launch of a Youth Corps to create employment and speed recovery’, accessed 27 June 2020

9 Richard Brabner, 2020, ‘Recruit a “civic army” of 75,000 young people…’, 29 May,

10 GOV.UK, 2020, ‘PM Economy Speech’, 30 June.

11 Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman and Heather Stewart, 2020, ‘Summer statement: Rishi Sunak plans temporary job creation scheme for under-25s, Guardian 8 July; Richard Partington and Kate Proctor, 2020, ‘Summer statement 2020: the chancellor’s key points at a glance’, Guardian, 8 July; HM Treasury, July, 2020, Plan for Jobs,

12 Larry Elliott, 2020, Low interest rates offer a rare solution that left and right can agree on’, Guardian, 22 June

Breaching the Social Contract with Young People

In this piece I seek to update the evidence on the ‘condition of youth’ in the UK today and outline a range of personal and structural issues which young people are currently having to negotiate, often with declining support from key state services.

The article appeared first in Youth & Policy at

Creating a new youth precariat

Austerity, Youth Policy and the Deconstruction of the Youth Service in England started from the proposition that a decade after the 2007-08 banking crisis ‘a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract’ has occurred resulting in young people’s living standards in the future ‘… likely not to be as high as they are for their parents’.[1] Some of the evidence for this came from the government’s own sources such as its Household Income Data – that for the third year running in 2016-17 the number of children living in relative poverty had increased to its highest level since 2007-08.[2] Six months later, a new measure of poverty from the Social Metrics Commission put this total at 4.5 million, with more than half predicted as likely to remain trapped in that situation for years.[3] Though often hidden in reports labelling them ‘children’[4], those in their teens and even into their twenties were thus already being recognised as firmly embedded within what had come to be recognised as the new ‘precariat’.

 By late 2018 it had become clear, too, that this experience of poverty, intersecting with wider structural factors, was contributing to a range of damaging outcomes for young people:

  • Between 2012-13 and 2016-17 the number of young people referred to the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) rose by 56 per cent, with the proportion of under 18’s who had self-harmed increasing by over 20 per cent.[5] A Children’s Society survey of 11,000 14 year olds published the following month revealed that over a year nearly a quarter of girls had self-harmed compared with under one in ten boys.[6]
  • A survey by the charity Crisis reported in 2014 that 8 per cent of 16-24 year olds had been homeless in the previous five years.[7] According to a Homeless Link report published in April 2018, more than a quarter of young people accessing homelessness services in the previous twelve months had been aged 16 or 17.[8] Figures released in November 2018 by the youth homeless organisation Centrepoint, however, revealed that during 2017-18, 52 per cent of 16-24 year olds who had sought help from their local councils had been turned away.[9]
  • Research by the Joseph Rowntrees Foundation and others identified white 16 year old boys living in ‘post-industrial’ communities as the lowest academic achievers.[10]
  • As acknowledged even by the government, ethnic minority young people were facing an ‘enormous social mobility challenge … from reaching their full potential at every stage of their lives’.[11] Its own findings in April 2018 showed that, when only 13 per cent of the UK population as a whole belonged to a BAME group, over 48 per cent of under-18s then in custody were classed as BAME.[12]

It was perhaps hardly surprising therefore that 15 year olds in England and Wales were amongst the least likely to express high levels of satisfaction with their lives.[13] Indeed, according to a 2017 Prince’s Trust survey, 28 per cent of the 2200 16-25 year olds interviewed described themselves as ‘trapped by the circumstances’ and ‘out of control’ of their lives[14].

Youth in poverty (continued)…

Authoritative research has continued to emerge over the past twelve months, including again from government sources, which both confirms and illuminates that generational breach of the social contract. Though some of the evidence is focused on 18-29 year olds, it nonetheless illustrates the likely future for the young people youth workers are meeting now and indeed what those young people themselves are often expecting.

Ta to

A Resolution Foundation study published in August 2019, for example, found that at the same stage of life, 26-28 year olds born in the later 1980s were by 2019 earning only 3 per cent more than their counterparts in the 1970s. After allowing for inflation, those in the East Midlands were earning some 2.7 per cent less than their age group had been earning in 2003. By comparison, the earnings of 28 year olds born in the early 1970s had been 16 per cent higher than those born just over a decade earlier.[15]

 For the current generation of young people, direct experience of poverty was already much more widespread. In March 2019, the Department of Work and Pension (DWP) reported that during 2017-18, the number of children living in absolute poverty had increased by 200,000 and those in relative poverty by 300,000 – the latter to 4.1 million or 30 per cent of the age group.[16] Some of the personal as well as material consequences were indicated the following month in a Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report which found that a quarter of children from low-income families were going hungry during the school day with some who qualified for free school meals, such as 15 year old Maddy, left humiliated by the way staff treated them.[17]

Based on a finding that the majority of children in one in every 40 council wards was living below the poverty line, the End Child Poverty coalition thus warned in May 2019 that in some areas child poverty was becoming the ‘new normal’.[18] This conclusion was given at least implicit support two months later by the Social Metrics Commission which found that 7 million people, including 2.3 million children, had been in poverty for at least two of the three previous years.[19] All this was occurring, moreover, just as (in 2017-18) the disposable income of the richest one per cent of individuals was increasing by more than seven times the average.[20]

Some of the most compelling evidence on UK poverty, however, came from a non-UK source – the United Nations ‘rapporteur’ on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. Based on a two-week fact-finding tour in November 2018, his final report (released in May 2019) labelled the situation in which four million children were by then living in poverty in the UK as a ‘social calamity’. It was ‘crystal clear’, he said, that this, the result of the government’s ‘austerity experiment’, amounted to a ‘systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population’ with DWP seemingly having been ‘tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse’. Alston also pointed specifically to the ‘slashed government spending on services’ as a direct cause of ‘the 40 per cent of children predicted to be living in poverty in two years time’.

….Within a structurally unequal society

A key overall conclusion drawn by the government’s Social Mobility Commission from this accumulating evidence was that inequality in Britain was ‘now entrenched from birth to work’ – that is, including within the teenage period – and that ‘being born privileged means you are likely to remain privileged…’ Children who had ‘professional’ parents were thus 80 per cent more likely to go into a professional occupation, while even those from working class backgrounds who made this journey successfully still on average earned 17 per cent less than ‘more privileged colleagues’.[21]

These conclusions – including again at least implicitly that the social contract with the young had been broken – were supported by a House of Lords Select Committee report published in April 2019. It pointed, for example, to ‘a structural shift’ between the generations and the ‘failure of successive governments to plan for the future and prepare for social, economic and technological change’. It also warned that if the government did not act, young people could soon ‘grow to resent older people for having … benefited from a lifetime of well-paid secure employment of which younger generations can only dream’. The Lords’ report attracted immediate endorsement from the British Youth Council which listed five issues which were key for young people including ‘investment in services such as youth provision’.[22]  

Personal pressures…

For many young people, their lived experiences of poverty continued to bring damaging personal consequences. Research by the Social Mobility Commission for the then Education Secretary Damian Hinds found ‘huge disparities’ in 10-15 year olds’ involvement in out-of-school activities when related to household income, with for example, the gap in participation in sporting activities reaching around 20 per cent. As well as pointing to cost and difficulties of access as likely explanations, the report noted, too, that ‘youth provision has been cut back by local councils’.[23]

Young people also continued to register a wider and deeper personal disillusion with their condition – as indicated, for example, by a Prince’s Trust survey published in February 2019. Over the previous decade, this found, the number of 16-25 year olds who judged life not worth living had doubled from 9 per cent to 18 per cent. Though many did see positives in their involvement with social media, just under half of those responding said that when comparing themselves with others using these sites, they became more anxious about their future, with 57 per cent feeling that they created ‘overwhelming pressure’ to succeed.[24] Related findings emerged from an August 2019 Young Minds report: that, as well as 77 per cent of the 7,000 young people it surveyed citing school as a pressure and 69 per cent worried about their appearance, 27 per cent said that spending too much time on social media had impacts on their mental health.[25]  

An Action for Children survey of 11-18 year olds and their parents and grandparents published in July 2019 also identified pressures to meet peers’ expectations and to achieve at school as well as anxieties about poverty, Brexit and climate change. A significant conclusion drawn from this evidence was that ‘The country is sleepwalking into a crisis in childhood and, far from being carefree, our children are buckling under the weight of unprecedented social pressures, global turmoil and a void in government policy which should keep them well and safe’.[26]

Climate change and sexual harassment again appeared as serious concerns for the 14-25 year old young women surveyed by Girlguiding, prompting the organisation to publish a ‘Future Girls’ manifesto in April 2019 addressing these and other issues.[27] Rising levels of dissatisfaction with life – what the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society called ‘a national scandal’ – were recorded, too, by the Society’s ‘Good Childhood’ annual survey of 2,400 households and its longitudinal study covering 40,000 households. Released in August 2019, this pointed to a fall in overall contentment amongst the 10-15 year olds interviewed which had left some 219,000 children in the UK describing themselves as unhappy. More specifically, a third said they were very or quite worried about having enough money in the future, 29 per cent about getting a job and 41 per cent about the environment, with those living in poverty most likely to worry about their mental health. Of particular relevance to youth workers, perhaps, was the finding that they were ‘increasingly unhappy with their friendships’.[28]

Within this overall environment of pressure and anxiety, disturbing evidence again emerged on how serious the mental health impacts had become for a growing number of young people. By 2019, for example, the rate of teenage suicides in England had increased from just over three in 100,000 in 2010 to more than five in 100,000; while in 2018 the rate amongst 20-24 year old men was 31 per cent higher than it had been the previous year. New evidence on self-harming also revealed that between 2000 and 2014, it rose amongst 16-24 year old young women from 6.5 per cent to 19.7 per cent of the age group and amongst young men from 4.2 per cent to 7.9 per cent.[29]

…And practical consequences

Behind this personal disillusion and indeed desperation lay a wider range of everyday, often structural-rooted, realities with significant practical impacts. Updated statistics from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, for example, revealed that that 48 per cent of young men in young offender institutions who in 2016-17 had identified as from a BAME background had a year later risen to 51 per cent.[30]    

For young people more widely, in some crucial areas their life choices were narrowing substantially. Co-inciding with a fall by half since 1997 in the proportion of 26-28 year olds owning their own home[31], the proportion of 20-34 year olds living with their parents rose in the same period from 2.4 million (19.48 per cent) to 3.4 million (25.91 per cent).[32] In mid-2019 the largest-ever survey of potential first-time buyers carried out by the mortgage lender Santander revealed that, though 91 per cent of those interviewed still aspired to buy their own home, by 2026 fewer than 25 per cent of the 18-34 year old age group would be in a position to do that. (This compared with half of under-34 year olds who were homeowners in 2006).[33] For the founder of the Intergenerational Foundation, this provided further evidence of the ‘breaking (of) the social contract’ and prompted a warning from Generation Rent, an organisation representing young people priced out of housing market that ‘resentment is growing’.[34]

Another crucial component of the purported social contract – opportunities for personal advancement via educational participation and achievement – also seemed to be under growing strain. New evidence showed, for example, that 22 per cent of pre-1992 graduates and 34 per cent those who had graduated in or after 2007 were not doing jobs requiring degree-level qualifications.[35] Perhaps not unconnected, data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency revealed that, albeit by only 0.2 per cent, for the first time since 2010-11 the proportion of UK state pupils going to university had fallen; and that in the period since 2012 when tuition fees were raised to £9,000 recruitment of students from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’ had gone up by only 0.7 per cent, to 11.6 per cent. Moreover, at time when according to a National Educational Opportunities Network report more than half of England’s university intakes still included fewer than 5 per cent of ‘poor white students’,[36] funding for an alternative route which some 16-19 year olds might have chosen – further education – had since 2012 been cut by 12 per cent.[37]

Even about a ‘youth’ policy area where, it could be argued, progress had been made – a 61.1 per cent reduction between 2009 and 2019 in the under-18s pregnancy rates – Public Health England’s teenage pregnancy advisor remained cautious. ‘Significant reductions in inequalities’, she said, ‘will also depend on tackling the wider determinants of early pregnancy and poor outcomes’ including family poverty.[38]

Where are the services: where is state policy?

Far from responding to these ‘wider determinants’ of young people’s condition, state policy, local and national, was usually in denial about them. In responding to the Alston UN report on UK poverty the DWP, for example, chose to highlight UN data which, it claimed, showed that ‘the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live’. In direct contradiction of Alston’s conclusion that ‘millions of those who are in work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope’, it also went on insisting that ‘… full-time work is the best way to boost your income and quality of life’[39].

In this environment, the core services on which the young relied continued to struggle to provide even crucial everyday support.

  • The Young Minds survey quoted earlier, for example, found that 67 per cent of its 7000 respondents hadn’t been able to get help with their mental health problems when they first needed it; that 78 per cent had had to manage their mental health on their own when help elsewhere wasn’t available; but that only 17 per cent were confident about doing this. Forty five per cent of those interviewed who had sought support from youth clubs said they had found this helpful (21 per cent said it hadn’t been) – though only 13 per cent had actually been able to find this source of help in their area.[40]
  • Research carried out by Homeless Link concluded that in 2018, young people continued to be over-represented in the use of homelessness services in England with 30 per cent of 16-25 year olds accessing these services even though this age group made up only 12.3 per cent of the population.
  • The annual ‘Vulnerability Report’ of the Children’s Commissioner in England estimated that in 2019, 2.3 million children were then living in a ‘vulnerable family’. Some 829,000 of these were seen as ‘“invisible” (in the sense that they were not known to services) and therefore not getting any support’ while for an additional 761,000 known to the services, the level of care was ‘unclear’. The report thus concluded that the care being offered to around 1.6 million children from a vulnerable family background was ‘either patchy or non-existent’.[41]

The Children’s Commissioner drew from her findings one particularly challenging message for the government: that ‘it might cost in the region of £10bn per year to fix this broken problem’. For her, ‘fixing’ had, amongst other things, to include opening schools in the holidays and providing ‘youth services to tackle gang violence’. With 25 per cent of all spending on children going on just the 1.1 per cent defined as needing acute and specialist services, the Chair of the Local Government Association’s used the report’s appearance to remind ministers that ‘children’s services were at a “tipping point” as a result of increasingly high levels of demand for support and cuts in central government funding’.[42]

Moreover, despite repeated promises from at least late 2018 that austerity was coming to an end, including in the Chancellor Sajid Javid’s recent Spending Review statement in Parliament, its impacts continued to be felt well into 2019. For the current financial year, for example, Derbyshire’s Conservative administration planned to cut its ‘early help’ budget from £12.9 million to £4.5 million, with the loss of 160 jobs. This meant ending all funding for ‘generic youth activity clubs’, a ‘community grants scheme’ was proposed ‘to help more organisations provide a wider range of community-based youth activities for teenagers.’[43]

As a way, he said, of ‘getting young people off the streets and changing lives for the better’, Javid did allocate money to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) ‘to develop proposals for a new Youth Investment Fund…… to set out plans to build more youth centres, refurbish existing centres, and deliver high quality services to young people across the country’. No details were given in the Statement and none appeared in the days immediately afterwards on how much money is to be made available or on how, precisely, it is to be used. Given how Javid introduced the announcement, however – with a glowing account of a visit to ‘the fantastic Onside Youth Zone in Barking…. a brilliant example of how much Britain’s network of youth centres add to our communities’ – it was clear that this new example of ‘gesture funding’ had nothing to do with reviving locally based forms of open access youth work. [44] This conclusion was given greater credence by one highly significant ‘absence’ in Javid’s Statement: any indication that he might be considering reversing the ‘cuts in central government funding’ referred to above by the LGA spokesperson. These had been achieved particularly by his Department’s virtual elimination of its Revenue Support Grant to local councils – a policy which over the previous decade had had very direct and especially damaging impacts on local authority Youth Services.

Broader government policies since Johnson became Prime Minister have made it clear that reinstating these ‘soft’ forms of provision for young people is unlikely to appear on his administration’s agenda. Amongst the earliest decisions, for example, were to fund 20,000 additional police posts, to extend virtually unrestricted stop-and-search procedures across the country and to provide 10,000 new prison places. By August 2019, the Home Office had published draft guidance for the introduction of ‘knife crime prevention orders’ which, amongst other punishments, could impose a curfew on anyone aged 12 or older who the police believed was carrying a knife or who had a previous knife crime conviction.[45]

The same hard-line ‘populist’ approach to young people was demonstrated in the new government’s proposed educational ‘reforms’, leaked in August 2019. One of their wider contexts (some of which the drafters were clearly aware) was that permanent school exclusions were already at their highest level for nearly a decade; that they were being targeted disproportionately at Black students; and that the young people left in limbo as a result often found themselves at risk on the streets and more likely to be drawn into the criminal justice system.[46] Despite evidence that these exclusions were in some schools driven by their strict disciplinary procedures, the leaked papers nonetheless revealed that the government was intending to give renewed and explicit endorsement to the use by teachers of ‘reasonable force’.

…And the future?

One uncomfortable message coming out of policies with priorities such as these, is that reinstating a practice like youth work with its commitment to being personally educational and to operate in people-centred ways, is likely to be well down the present government’s agenda, if it appears at all.

More broadly, however, these policies, materially and ideologically, are unlikely in any substantive way to address many of the ‘condition of youth’ challenges outlined in this piece. Despite Javid’s beyond-austerity claims for his spending plans, the Department of Education will still be dealing with an 11 per cent cut in its resources since 2009-10 and the DCMS a 12 per cent cut.[47] No less damagingly in the long run, embedded within these policies are explanations of the problems with which so many young people are struggling, which miss or marginalise some of their most crucial features. Implicitly as well as explicitly, for example, they repeatedly locate responsibility – blame – for those problems in the young person as an individual and/or, at its widest, in her/his ‘dysfunctional’ family. Not only, therefore, do they ignore deeper structural causes – shaped for example by the class, gender and race factors reflected in some of the statistics quoted earlier; they also are liable to sideline closer-to-home institutional factors such as, in schools, how a focus on ensuring a top place in the examination league tables can result in some 10,000 year-10s and 11s being ‘off-rolled’ and then no longer traceable within the state system.[48]

All of which seems to point to a pretty gloomy conclusion: that current government approaches and initiatives will not only do little to relieve the pressures as evidenced in this post on young people and on the services working with them. They could even make them worse.


[1] John Lanchester, 2018, ‘After the Fall’, London Review of Books, Vol 40, No 13, 5 July

[1] Tristan Donovan, 2018A, ‘“Child poverty hits highest level in decade”’, CYPN, 22 March

[2] Patrick Butler, 2018, ‘New study finds 4.5 million UK children living in poverty’, Guardian, 17 September

[3] See for example Brigid Francis-Devine et al, 2019, ‘Poverty in the UK: Statistics’, Briefing paper 7096, House of Commons Library, 2 July which defined ‘children’ as ‘… aged under 16, or who are aged 16-19, not married or co-habiting and in full-time non-advanced education’.

[4] Denis Campbell, 2018, ‘NHS unit on the frontline oin a child mental health crisis’, Guardian, 3 July

[5] Sarah Marsh and Amanda Boateng, 2018, ‘Quarter of UK girls self-harm at 14, “deeply worrying” survey reveals’, Guardian 29 August

[6] Emma Jackson, 2016, ‘We are on the brink of a homelessness crisis among young people’, Guardian, 9 February

[7] Joe Lepper, 2018A, ‘Youth homelessness rise linked to welfare reforms, report finds”’, CYPN 16 April

[8] Patrick Butler, 2018, ‘Half of young people facing homelessness denied help – report’, Guardian, 11 November

[9] Harris Beider, 2011, ‘White working-class views of neighbourhood cohesion and change’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, November; Mary Clare-Travers, 2017, ‘White working class boys: Teachers matter’, BERA, 31 August,

[10] Social Mobility Commission, 2017, ‘Young Muslims in the UK face enormous social mobility barriers’, GOV.UK,

[11] Neil Puffett, 2018A, ‘“Surge in proportion of black, Asian and ethnic minority children in custody”’, CYPN, 8 June

[12] Sally Weale, 2016, ‘British teenagers amongst the least satisfied in western world’, Guardian, 15 March

[13] Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“One in four young people ‘don’t feel in control of their life”’, CYPN, 6 January; Owen op cit

[14] Owen Jones, 2017, ‘The Tory policy for young people in Britain is victimisation by design’, Guardian, 12 January

[15] Richard Partington, 2019, ‘East Midlands shows biggest slip in living standards from previous generation’, Guardian, 29 August

[16] Phillip Inman and Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Poverty increases among children and pensioners across UK’, Guardian, 28 March; Brigid Francis-Devine et al, 2019, ‘Poverty in the UK: Statistics’, Briefing paper 7096, House of Commons Library, 2 July.

[17] Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Quarter of children from low-income families ‘go hungry’”’, CYPN, 2 April

[18] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Child poverty becoming the ‘new normal’, campaigners warn”’, CYPN, 15 May

[19] Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘More than 4m in the UK trapped in poverty, study finds’, Guardian, 29 July

[20] Danny Dorling, 2019, ‘Letters – Anti-Masochism’, London Review of Books, Vol 41, no 12, 20 June 

[21] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Social mobility in UK “virtually stagnant” since 2014’, Guardian, 30 April

[22], 2019, ‘Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Tackling intergeneration unfairness’,, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“BYC backs measures to tackle intergenerational inequality”’, CYPN, 26 April

[23] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Disadvantaged children missing out on out-of-school activities”’, CYPN, 19 July

[24] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age’, Guardian, 5 February

[25] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August      

[26] Action for Children, 2019, ‘Childhood in crisis: Almost two thirds of parents and grandparents say childhood getting worse – and nearly two million children in the UK agree’, 9 July, available at; Patrick Butler, 2019, ‘UK “sleepwalking into a crisis of childhood”, charity warns’, Guardian 9 July

[27] Amy Walker, 2019, ‘Climate change and sexual harassment top list of girls’ concerns’, Guardian, 25 April; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Manifesto draws on views of 76,000 girls and young women”’, CYPN, 25 April

[28] Matthew Weaver, 2019, ‘Children in the UK least happy they have been in a decade, says report’, Guardian, 28 August; Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Happiness study raises fears of children’s mental health”’, CYPN, 29 August

[29] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Anxiety on rise among the young in social media age’, Guardian, 5 February; Denis Cambell, 2019, One in five young women have self-harmed, study reveals’, Guardian 4 June; Damien Gayle, 2019, ‘Men hit hardest as UK suicide rate soars to its highest since 2002’, Guardian, 4 September

[30] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Half of boys in YOIs are from BME backgrounds’ CYPN, 29 January; Jamie Grierson, 2019, ‘Half of young inmate are from BAME background’, Guardian, 29 January

[31] Richard Partington, 2019, ‘East Midlands shows biggest slip in living standards from previous generation’, Guardian, 29 August

[32] Aamna Mohdin, 2019, ‘Nearly one million more adults now live with their parents – study’, Guardian, 8 February

[33] Miles Brignall, 2019, ‘Young Britons believe dream of owning home is over, survey says’, Guardian, 31 July

[34] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘Young adults have less to spend on non-essentials, study says’, Guardian, 20 June

[35] Sally Weale, 2019, ‘Third of UK graduates over qualified for their job’, Guardian, 29 April

[36] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Rising trend of state school pupils going to university reverses’, Guardian, 7 February; Sean Coughlan, 2019, ‘Half of universities have fewer than 5% white students’, BBC News, 14 February,

[37] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Social mobility in UK “virtually stagnant” since 2014’, Guardian, 30 April

[38] Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘“Teenage pregnancy rate falls for 10th Year”’, CYPN, 15 April

[39] Robert Booth, 2019, ‘UN report compares Tory welfare policies to creation of workhouses’, Guardian, 22 May; Joanne Parkes, 2019, ‘“’Nearly Half’ of UK children in poverty by 2021, UN expert warns”’, CYPN, 22 May

[40] Young Minds, 2019, ‘Huge gaps in early support for young people with mental health problems – new survey’,, 2 August; Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Charity urges early help for young people struggling with mental health problems”’, CYPN, 30 August

[41] Children’s Commissioner, 2019, ‘Childhood vulnerability in England 2019’,; Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Children’s Commissioner: Next PM should spend billions on children, not tax cuts’, CYPN, 4 July

[42] Nina Jacobs, 2019, ‘“Children’s Commissioner: Next PM should spend billions on children, not tax cuts’, CYPN, 4 July

[43] Derbyshire County Council, 2019, ‘Report of the Strategic Director for Children’s Services: Early help services for children, young people and their families – (Young People), 31 January; Eddie Bisknell, 2019, ‘Here’s the services which could be affected as Derbyshire County Council faces another year of multi-million pound budget cuts’, Derbyshire Times, 22 January; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2019, ‘Council axes 160 jobs as it cuts £8.6m from early help budget’, Children and Young People Now, 6 February

[44] GOV.UK, 2019, Spending Round 2019: Chancellor Sajid Javid’s speech,, 4 September

[45] Joe Lepper, 2019, ‘“Curfews for young people planned in bid to tackle knife crime”’, CYPN, 21 August

[46] Sally Weale and Richard Adams, 2019, ‘Schools shake-up: the four key areas in leaked Tory proposals’, Guardian, 27 August. See also Community Empowerment Network, 2019, ‘Being Black & Dead While Excluded’ January 2019, available via; Edward Timpson, 2019,Timpson Review of School Exclusions, OGL, May,

[47] Phillip Inman, 2019, ‘Has the age of austerity  really come to an end?’, Guardian, 5 September

[48] Richard Adams, 2019, ‘GCSEs: 10,000 pupils disappear from English schools at “critical” stage’, Guardian, 6 September