In his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, about the damage inflicted on the youthful lives of those who had lived through the Great War, Ernest Hemingway popularised the phrase ‘the lost generation’.
The term has been adopted and adapted ever since to describe the casualties of military and economic trauma. Again in our prolonged slump it has been used to evoke the despair faced by a cohort of jobless young people who find themselves without work, or hope of work.
In Greece, youth unemployment stands at a staggering 65% of 15 – 24 year olds; 55% in Spain and 40% in Italy. It is not a phenomenon confined to southern Europe; across the Eurozone the average rate of youth unemployment is 25%.
In the UK, just over one in five young people under the age of 24 are unemployed – close to a million jobless youngsters. In Wales 23% of 19-24 year olds were not in education, employment or training in 2012.
This generation – the first not able to expect a better standard of living than the generation before them – faces other profound challenges too. A ticking time-bomb of environmental challenges, and a demographic time bomb which threatens to overwhelm the post-war settlement of public service and welfare support.
One-in-six of the UK population is currently aged 65 and over, and by 2050 it will be one in- four.
It is too easy to resign ourselves to the language of markets and globalisation, to the idea that there is little that we can do to rescue this generation, or devise practical solutions to their challenges. Hemingway’s novel was not about despair, his message was about resilience. Just as the generation who fought World War One were battered, they were not lost – and nor is this one.
Drawing on examples from around the world, the Institute of Welsh Affairs is proposing a new initiative to tackle the dual problems of youth unemployment and an ageing population.
This morning we publish the first in our new series of Senedd Papers (a series designed to stimulate debate around practical proposals to improve life in Wales).
Our launch report, a real Citizen Service for Wales, sets out a proposal for a year long placement for 18-25 year olds to gain new skills. Open to both gap year graduates, and those not in training or education, the paid placement would help address the growing social care needs of our ageing society, while allowing young people from a range of social and educational backgrounds to work alongside each other.
Report author Andy Bevan uses his own 25 years of experience in volunteering around the world as the basis for his recommendations. As he writes:
“The citizen service model is part of a considered response to the long-term demographic problems facing us. It enables young people, whose contribution to society is currently so often undervalued or rejected, to be part of the solution to the growing needs of an ageing society, promoting solidarity between the young and the old, as part of a community-wide approach”.
The IWA Senedd Paper is informed by evidence from Germany, Canada and Belgium to suggest different models of a ‘Citizen Service’ that Wales could adopt. One option highlighted would see young people drawing on EU-wide examples where they would help senior citizens in accessing online information (including about medical conditions), communication (sometimes with far-flung families) and entertainment.
The report proposes a £15 Million pilot project for 1,250 young people to test a range of approaches, part funded by EU aid.
To give one example of the kind of scheme which has already proved a success across Europe, Andy Bevan cites the EU’s European Voluntary Service scheme (EVS). Since 1996, a small group of young people from across Europe have provided mental health support and contributed to other projects each year. Through the EVS hundreds of young Europeans have contributed to valuable social care projects and gained a lot of new skills in the process. Volunteers have brought “added value” from being able to give time to things like conversation, engagement, recreation and companionship.
Andy Bevan argues in the paper, “the young people who have given their time to these things have learnt a lesson for life, preparing them for inevitable issues of ageing within their own circle of family and friends later in life, and have had the opportunity to think about the change in status and respect which the whole of society needs to develop in its attitude towards the needs of our growing number and proportion of senior citizens”.
The report cites several other examples from around the world that could be drawn upon to design a scheme that fit the needs of communities in Wales. He suggests a new scheme could involve placements away from home where young people could work abroad, or in communities across Wales different from their own – for example, there could be opportunities to promote bilingualism by immersing participants in Welsh speaking communities.
He is quick to distinguish this proposal from the kind of scheme currently being canvassed by the UK government. “Dressing up three weeks of summer activity in the language of citizenship is a bit like what Nye Bevan once called “putting flamboyant labels on empty luggage”. Such initiatives are not only cosmetic, but are likely to be ineffective”, he argues.
Instead he frames his proposal within the European tradition:
“The proposal is for a comprehensive citizen service programme, not for just another job creation programme targeting socially disadvantaged young people – there are already a number of such schemes – though citizen service could fit effectively alongside them. On the contrary, citizen service is promoted here as a new and long-term addition to our social landscape in Wales. It has a wider rationale, a wider appeal and a wider constituency. It should be an opportunity for a comprehensive, wide range of young people from all parts of Wales to work together: young unemployed people, school-leavers over the age of 18 and recent graduates, who all want to contribute to Welsh communities, picking up valuable life skills, training and accreditation in the process”.
Andy Bevan’s Senedd Paper sketches an outline of how we can use devolution to make a difference to the lives of the young and the old simultaneously, and deserves serious consideration by all the political parties”.