WHEN Chancellor Rishi Sunak sets out his latest plans to save the economy this week, he must put young people at the top of the agenda.
His message should be very simple: Educate or vegetate.
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With fresh redundancies announced almost daily, the furlough scheme starting to unwind from next month and an expected three million unemployed by winter, the consequences for the next generation are bleak.
Unless the Chancellor puts young people at the forefront of his rescue package, they will pay the heaviest price.
Many could be thrown on the “scrapheap” and those trying to build a new career will find it tougher than ever to get a foothold on the jobs ladder.
The impact of unemployment will blight their future, as the knock-on effects — including hopelessness and alienation — will last a lifetime.
The Government has a simple choice this week: Either invest now to ensure youngsters have the training and skills needed to meet the challenges ahead, or we will all pick up the pieces later.
That means laying the ground for real apprenticeships and work experience, with proper jobs at the end of them.
There should be more opportunity to continue learning, developing the knowledge and skills required to land a job or, better still, become a future entrepreneur.
We should seize the opportunity to create new jobs in the regions by regenerating the North and the Midlands, including tackling climate change, housing and construction, and the added social care challenges of supporting an ageing population.
The Chancellor should also work with business and the trade unions to recruit 250,000 employers willing to assist, by offering them incentives and subsidies, including help with National Insurance and pension contributions.
Additionally, existing underspends and the Apprenticeship Levy, together with potential benefit payments, should be topped up to create a £3billion fund to meet the challenge of a record million under-25s predicted to be out of work by Christmas.
This is not just a matter of hard-headed public policy.
It is about the lives of every individual and their chances of building a future for themselves, developing a family of their own and contributing to their community.
It is about what happens when aimlessness turns either into apathy or, more likely, into what my grandfather would have described as the danger of “idle hands”.
History has taught us that society begins to unravel when young men without prospects, stability or the capacity to provide a role model become an unattractive prospect as a lifelong partner.
The future is grim when young women feel that they alone carry the responsibility of nurturing a child, and when a lack of prospects and progress to something better leads to a “live today and to hell with tomorrow” attitude.
Former Conservative minister Lord Willetts has written and spoken convincingly about the danger of the generational divide.
His honest reflections of how the austerity measures put in place in 2010 hit younger people hardest, and how the protected pensions of the past, combined with the enormous rise in property values, have placed the majority of older people in a more favourable place to face the future showed great insight.
Young people lack the prospects of a secure job and either owning their own home or affording the rent.
That is why we should face this challenge head-on and invest now, or we will pick up the cost later.
In 1997, during the early days of the New Labour government, our New Deal for the young unemployed offered four options.
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Not surprisingly, the bulk of young people went for either jobs with training attached or full-time education, which would lead to much better prospects of holding on to a job with decent earnings.
Another lesson learnt, including in 2008-09, was that much of what needed to be done should be localised.
The tendency to over-centralise everything has bedevilled us in this crisis.
From the failure to devolve test-and-trace to local government through to months of ineptitude in getting our children back to school, the Government has classically created a central bureaucracy then blamed it for failure.
While it has done the right thing in investing money in recovery programmes for our children over the winter, astonishingly, it failed to put any money in for recovery for those 16 to 19-year-olds in further education in sixth-form colleges.
These are the young people whose vocational training and practical opportunities for work will be vital both for the economic recovery and for their own chances of getting a job.
After all, you cannot promise a guarantee of apprenticeships or work experience if a business has folded.
The Government needs to work with and listen to young people, employers and those in education and training.
Unfashionable as it is at this moment to talk about universities, it is crucial that those capable of taking up such opportunities should be supported in doing so.
If we don’t, they will be the ones who take the jobs of those less qualified and less confident.
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The result is simple. The least educated and the most vulnerable will be the ones to lose out most.
Thinking these things through carefully, being able to act decisively and learning from the past, while not living in it, is surely common sense.
And by God, we need a great deal more of that right now.
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