Young women: unemployed and on the shelf?

I’m writing this from my flat in Japan where the footage of the London riots and the subsequent polarising sentencing has made my home country appear strange and post-apocalyptic.

Without my usual grounding calmness of the tractor-speed Somerset countryside to provide context, it looks from here as if the UK is falling into a pit of despair. Perhaps living in a country that has seen fully fledged disaster should put everything into perspective, but in the long term it doesn’t.

The cuts of this government are really starting to bleed and the worrying statistics show that women are being hit by far the hardest and in particular young women. The TUC published a report in which it pointed out that in recent months “female unemployment levels have reached their highest since the start of the recession”, while men’s unemployment has fallen.

It found: “In some areas of the country more than 20% of young women (16-24) are unemployed, compared to far lower percentages in higher age groups.” The Office for National Statistics’ latest bulletin, released on 14 September, shows that women’s unemployment continues to rise at a higher rate than men’s: “The number of unemployed men increased by 39,000…and the number of unemployed women increased by 41,000.” Youth unemployment is also up 1.6% since April 2011 to “20.8% of the economically active population”.

I’m not young enough to fall into that 18 to 24 category, but I am young enough to not quite have a career or savings or any kind of financial stability. These young women are facing quite another struggle just to get into work at all.

Without a chance to work your way to the top from a young age, it will become harder for women to reach the higher positions in companies

If young women are struggling to find a place in the world of employment, then they are struggling to find a place in society.

The way that our norms and values are constructed place the highest value upon what we do. If we do nothing, we consequently have no value. We know that this is not true on an individual basis, but self-esteem and ambition takes a real hit when we can’t play a role in the economic system. Another barrier to self-worth that young women could do without.

Analysts are looking increasingly downcast about the future of the British economy. One report in The Observer suggested we are headed for something akin to Japan’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation.

I’m not an economist, but this lack of recovery is clearly linked to a continued lack of jobs. It is interesting that figures for unemployed women at first grew less sharply than men’s. At the start of the financial crisis, it was men who suffered more. But during the slow and halting ‘recovery’, women in general and specifically younger ones are feeling the bite. This suggests there will be a generation of women outside of society.

With the huge inflation of house prices over the decades of boom and the current pumping up of rental prices, it looks doubtful that young people in general will ever have the kind of security their parents generation could expect and certainly not at the same age. This is by no means a problem only for women and I wouldn’t suggest men should suffer either, but it is those 16 to 24-year-old women whose future I can feel slipping away as I read yet another prediction of doom in the newspapers.

Women in the workplace hold a less than equal position as it is. This August, an Equalities and Human Rights Commission report showed “a continuing trend of women being passed over for top jobs in Britain”.

Little progress has been made since the last iteration of this report in 2008, with so many young women losing out on any employment I find little hope for the next study’s findings. Where are the next generation of successful women going to come from? Without a chance to work your way to the top from a young age, it will become harder for women to reach the higher positions in companies.

As Commissioner Kay Carberry says in the report, “If Britain is to stage a strong recovery from its current economic situation, then we have to make sure we’re not wasting women’s skills and talents.”

The government has an answer of sorts for all young people; a replacement for the New Deal initiative, introduced by Labour in 1998 to reduce unemployment by subsidising training and employment, but also allowing benefits to be withdrawn from people who refuse ‘reasonable’ offers of work. I have seen the New Deal scheme in action and indeed I hope that there is some improvement in the new model.

Successful women could intervene to offer young women a decent work experience placement

Managing a charity bookshop, I was often approached by New Deal social workers looking to place a young person in work. I took on a young girl hoping to give her a chance at having some retail experience to put on her CV.

It was clear that she had been passed from pillar to post and, though bright and engaging, had lost faith in the scheme after being given one too many time-wasting work experience assignments. I gave her real tasks to do but she was convinced of the hopelessness of her position and stopped turning up.

These kids are just handed out to random people and shown what menial work can offer, knowing that the wage on offer wouldn’t even give them enough to rent a room somewhere cheap. It isn’t hope, but a real-life glimpse of their desperate plight. They need to be invigorated, challenged and shown what is possible.

This is where we need successful women to reach out and offer an insight into the way life could be. Work experience in a serious and rewarding arena could give young women a huge CV boost, skills, knowledge and confidence.

I am a feminist who wants equality not matriarchy, so of course this could extend to men, but women need to foster cooperation with each other, they need to back each other up and they need to offer hope to one another. I am in no way a fan of the trend for unpaid internships. Usually a university educated young person, often a post-graduate, struggles to work in some publishing company or law firm in the hopes of cracking into their chosen and well-invested in career. But using the government funds for the scheme to get young people into work, successful women could intervene to offer young women a decent work experience placement.

So back to my perspective. I feel a bit like I’m watching the UK through a keyhole or as it really is through a computer screen. In Japan, after the disaster hit and it was clear that bringing the nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi under control was a long-term job putting many engineers lives at risk, an unusual thing happened.

Retired nuclear power plant workers began to suggest that it should be their older bodies in the way of danger rather than those of their younger counterparts. Although this wasn’t their job anymore, wasn’t their problem they wanted to go in and help in order to save the health of people younger than them. They felt they were in it together. Maybe this financial crisis is our call for women in the workplace to band together a little more, to reach out and offer a hand to those who could one day replace them.

‘Recession Desk’ image uploaded by nogoodreason: to-do list reads “Find job!!! Pay rent. Pay bills. Pay council tax. Buy food. Buy toilet paper. Buy bus pass. Buy washing up stuff. Buy xmas presents.” Picture of George Osborne with the budget briefcase of doom uploaded by Flickr user The Prime Minister’s Office. Picture of a Job Centre uploaded by Flickr user lydiashiningbrightly.

Joanne Fradley is an English teacher living in Japan for a year. Her first novel, The Missing Tree, is available on Amazon Kindle and she is writing her second novel in between classes