The best I can do for today’s youth is quit
By Lucy Kellaway (FT)
Wasting time on the dismal Davos website last week I found a nasty statistic. In the next 10 years there will be 1.2bn young people looking for work and only 300m jobs to go around. Next to this stark stat was an invitation to write an essay solving the problem.
Briefly I got excited and started sharpening my pencil, as I’m pretty sure I have the perfect answer to the question of youth unemployment. Alas, on closer inspection, the competition turns out not to be open to me, but to the “Young Global Shapers Community”, which sounds like a group of juvenile dieters but turns out to be “extraordinary individuals” in their 20s and 30s.
If you want adult behaviour, treat people like babies
Yet however extraordinary these people are, I guarantee their essays will be no good. The young shapers have been given the title: “What can I and the global community do to create jobs for my generation?”, but there is nothing much any of them can do – because we old shapers are in the way.
So I’ve decided to press ahead with my entry regardless. My essay is quite short – which I hope will be a blessed relief to the judges. What I would do can be summarised in one word: resign.
This inescapable, awkward truth has been rammed home to me in the past few months as I keep meeting bright people in their 20s and 30s desperate for a job in journalism – and for mine in particular. I fob them off with platitudes about what a difficult market journalism is, but no one is fooled. The real reason they can’t do my job is that I’m doing it myself.
The same is true for almost all professions. The young can’t advance because everywhere they find my complacent generation is in situ. Thus the only way of solving the problem is to make everyone of a certain age, say over 50, walk the plank.
Before I go any further, I ought to make one thing clear. This is not a resignation letter – I intend to hang on for dear life. It is just that I can’t resist pointing out the obvious, even though it is not in my interests to do so. Forcibly breaking the logjam would not only do much for youth unemployment, it would also serve a lot of other ends.
The choice boils down to whether it’s better for people to have a decade at the beginning or at the end of their careers where they are demoralised and underemployed. The answer is easy: surely it is better to be more active at the beginning.
To have people idle at a time when they are full of energy and their grey-cell count is at a maximum is a shocking waste. And in any case, my generation has had it very good for much too long. We bought houses when they were still just about affordable. We had free education and pensions. It’s all been jolly nice, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. Now is the time to start to pay.
One of the beauties of the young is that they are cheap. Shifting from old to young would bring down wages and would also solve the executive pay problem in one shot. Almost all the people earning grotesque amounts are over 50 – getting rid of them would mean CEO pay would come thumping down. The RBS chief, Stephen Hester, was in the year below me at university – which must make him about 51. So bad luck Steve, your time is up too.
I have tried this idea out on various contemporaries and they all say it’s rubbish. They mutter about the “lump of labour fallacy” with a panicky look in their eyes. Then they say: think about the loss of experience.
I reply that experience can be overrated; in any case, I’m not advocating giving huge jobs to children, but to those in their 40s, who have 15 or 20 years’ experience, which is surely just as good as 30 or even 40.
Then they protest that the people at the top are there because they are good, and getting rid of good people is stupid. This is true up to a point, but there are surely younger people who are good too. Anyway, I might bend the rules to let some ageing superstars – of whom there are very, very few – stay on.
So what would the rest of us unemployed 50- and 60-somethings do? We could sell our experience as consultants. We could start again as something else. We could be entrepreneurs – surely our experience would help. We could live off the profits we’ve made on our houses. Or we could scrimp and save and go to university. It has always seemed a waste for 20-year-olds to do useless degrees in English and history when 50-year-olds would get so much more out of it.
I’m still not saying I like the idea. I’m just saying I believe it. And I’m submitting this as my essay for the prize. I see that the winner gets €10,000. I hope I don’t win, though if I do, I’ll need the money.
The best I can do for today’s youth is quit