The Plight of the Millennials

He doesn’t look too happy does he? Source: Coffee Collective Blog

Apparently 19% of young people were unemployed in January-March this year in Britain.

That’s one out of every five people aged 16-24. ONE OUT OF FIVE. These statistics might not even account for the thousands of underemployed people on zero hour contracts, like some of my friends, and me too last year.

Unemployment rate
Source: Youth unemployment statistics, House of Commons Library

If you look at the Wikipedia page for Millennials, it will tell you that my generation are civic-minded: we want to make a difference to society collectively. We are socially aware and more accepting of others. We support legalisation of same-sex marriage. We’re open minded. We want to marry the right person so we don’t get divorced, like our parents’ generation. We’re also highly educated – for a few years before the hike in tuition fees, over 45% of us had been enrolling at universities.

To me these all sound like great things. We are a generation that is not just tolerant of others; we actively welcome differences. We want to collaborate to change the world for the better, and we are hungry for learning how to do that.

Yet we are underemployed and unemployed. The recession has forced us to be adaptable, and fit ourselves chameleon-like to whatever work opportunities have arisen. We have to learn on the hoof – often our degrees don’t properly prepare us for the working world. We have no job security – I don’t know if any of my friends who are young designers have a permanent contract as a designer. The longest contract I had was one year, and I got made redundant anyway three months in, despite having passed a three month trial prior to that. I know people who have been on rolling one month contracts, despite having studied to postgraduate level.

Unemployment by age
Source: Youth unemployment statistics, House of Commons Library

I don’t know enough about employment policy to understand why this is happening. From my experiences, it seems that whenever a business budget is cut, the juniors are the first to go. This leaves my generation as highly educated but under experienced. Without being allowed to stay in jobs for a long time, we have short bursts of experience, which many employers look harshly on. We become trapped since we don’t have enough proven prior experience to get a job, but we can’t get the experience in the first place.

An option many people are forced to take is to do unpaid internships. This means that people have to live with their parents for longer – and if your parents aren’t in London, you can’t even get a foot in the door. Eventually many people give up and work in retail, or try to juggle freelancing and bar work. Perhaps the lady in the Topshop dressing room is a behavioural sciences expert, and maybe your barista has an MA in Post-Colonial Literature.

Source: BBC News

The solution I used to spout to anyone who would listen was for our generation to be more entrepreneurial and make our own business. However, having tried it for myself, I realised that alone I didn’t know how to build a financially sustainable business. My work is meaningful and worthy, and I have good ideas, but I don’t know how to make money.

Not everyone has the natural instincts to effectively make money, and it’s not something they teach you at university or school. Our Job Centres don’t support us to learn to be entrepreneurial either. They don’t have any help on offer for graduates with a little bit of experience. I’ve asked.

We have a massive societal problem here and it’s not talked about enough. We need to do something about it. My generation is being wasted in coffee bars when really we have the potential to make further-reaching impact. I’m not talking about just me here – this is affecting many of my friends and people that I meet. Relatively I’m doing alright – but I want to speak out for all of us.


Let me tell you my personal experience. In the near-two years since I graduated, I have been employed for two six month stints in fantastic start ups, with meaningful work I loved and was good at. There was not enough resource in either company for formal training. I am working in a new field of service design where the boundaries of the discipline are blurred; this combined with finding my feet in the working world (which many people find challenging to begin with) has been a difficult experience to navigate, with occasional doses of self-doubt and frequent stress. It’s down to my inner self-assurance that I have had this work at all, and have been able to quit my bar job. Many people don’t have a family as supportive as mine.

In the gaps between the work in start-ups, I have worked as a freelancer and tried to set up my own business (but failed). I have taken the approach of meeting as many people as possible who do interesting work, from management consultants to social innovators to entrepreneurs to service designers and beyond. I have been very proactive because that’s my personality. But despite my greatest efforts, it’s still very difficult to find the right opportunity for my level of skills and the work that I find meaningful.

It’s disheartening. It makes me feel terribly undervalued to be the first in a company to be cast off, despite having being told by managers and colleagues how good I am at my job. Many people slump into bouts of depression when they are unemployed; thankfully I am not there, but it does make me unhappy, frustrated and unfulfilled to not be able to be paid to apply my enthusiasm and skills to work that creates positive impact. Am I asking for too much?

Give the cat a job. Source: Cheezburger

So here’s some ideas for briefs:
How might the UK government support graduates into work? This could take the form of employment policy to encourage companies to employ more graduates usefully, or it could take the form of supporting graduates to further their skills practically to gain employment.

How might we create a support network for graduates in partnership with the Job Centre? Currently Backr is doing this but their reach is limited. What could the support network offer?

How might we spread a culture of entrepreneurialism through schools, universities and beyond? We could support people to gain the skills to make money for themselves in order to create sustainable work for themselves.

How might we promote a culture where we talk about the failure of our social structures to make use of all the rich resources young people have the potential to offer? Those of us not in a ‘career job’ feel ashamed and blame ourselves; the recession has hit this generation hard. Self blame can lead to under confidence and under valuing yourself. More awareness that it is the circumstances that are often to blame for this situation could lead to more individual confidence. I am starting to address this brief with this article, and you can do this too by sharing your experiences of employment and unemployment with other people, online and offline.

The recession has left us in an unprecedented culture where skills and knowledge that served previous generations well do not have the same value in my generation. We need to adapt our current social systems to harness the potential power of the Millennial generation. I would like to better understand all this, so if you have any insights to share, please get in touch, especially if you think I am wrong.


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