London, 8-9 February 2000

John Evans, TUAC


 Thank you for the invitation to address your Conference this evening. A few days ago I had the opportunity to listen to a former Russian Prime Minister address a business audience on the changes taking place in the Russian economy. Only having five minutes available he said he would limit his remarks to two points:- the past and the future ! 

 I feel in a similar position with my five minutes this evening and will also address two points: firstly, what is the most disturbing aspect of the youth employment problem; and secondly, what trade unions are doing to make sure we are part of the solution. 

 The problem, as we see it, is that despite being better educated and smaller in numbers than twenty years ago, young people entering working life today in the majority of OECD countries face unacceptable employment problems. For many OECD countries the rule is that unemployment for the under 25’s is always double the adult average. But even this figure does not reflect the real problem. Young people are increasingly divided in terms of their exposure to unemployment, their ability to get decent work, their access to tertiary education and subsequent learning throughout their working life. The new economy is producing a split society. 

 On the one hand, there are young people who are benefiting from longer periods in education, easier access to communication technology - the internet, mobile phones, multimedia - and who, as OECD work has shown, are the ones who employers will train and retrain. If life is not exactly a peaceful river they will have the skills to navigate a fast moving stream. For them the knowledge society means exciting opportunities. 

 But then there is another group, which is only too apparent from the OECD and ILO data, we meet them on the street everyday. A few trends are now clear:- 

 - In the EU there has been a growth in the proportion of teenagers and young adults living in households where no one is employed; these account for up to 40% of the young unemployed in some countries; 

 - Young men are increasingly involved in crime - in the United States prison seems to be the fastest growing occupation amongst young people - the incarceration rate is ten times that in Europe; 

 - Increasing numbers of young people are committing suicide particularly in the English speaking OECD countries.

 But above and beyond this hard core of marginalised youth there is a wider group of young adults seeing a decline in their relative wages, they face repeated spells of unemployment, interspersed with low skill dead end jobs. Together these groups risk being marginalised from the New Economy and we risk seeing the fabric of society permanently damaged for the next fifty years. 

 With regard to my second point “what can unions do”, I would make two initial disclaimers. The solution to the youth employment problem is not in the labour market alone, economic policies also bear enormous responsibility. It is clear that youth employment is not just cyclical, it is “super cyclical” and I would urge next time that you as Labour Ministers meet, you invite some Central Bankers as well as BIAC and TUAC to discuss this issue. Another disclaimer is of course that trade unions are not the only actors in the labour market but we know that as social partners we have responsibilities to youth. 

 That notion of partnership means unions have different roles:- it means a role as negotiators to ensure that entry level jobs are not high turnover jobs but give, as Juan Somavia in the ILO has dubbed it, access to “decent work”. 

 We have a role as partners in apprenticeship systems, which as Paul Ryan’s conclusions from the OECD Washington Youth Conference last year showed, have provided a changing but remarkably successful transition from school to work in “dual system” countries such as Germany. 

 We have a role as a pressure group to make sure that active labour market programmes for youth are improved in terms of duration, quality and success rate, because we know that whilst labour market schemes don’t always work if the alternative is prison then that certainly never works. 

 We have a role to empower young people, who are falling out of the labour force now, to give them a second chance. In many OECD countries, unions were the creators of the adult education systems that we have today. For many young people who have fallen out of the formal education system, they may not trust their schools, the public authorities or their employers but they may, if we are doing our job well, trust their unions as organisations to bring them back into the “learning society”, and unions are adapting as educators. Unions such as UNISON in the UK now employ forty full time education officers and their own education courses provide modules recognised up to post-graduate level. 

 So, unions are part of the solution, which can bind together the social fabric of OECD countries at a time when the centrifugal forces of globalisation and technological change are pulling it apart. But we have to do more. I listened to John Monks, Head of the TUC, point out a few days ago that the average age of an employee in the UK is thirty-four and the average trade union member’s age is forty-six! I should say that John Monks also pointed out that the average age of a Conservative Party member is sixty-six! But we still have much to do to attract young people and that explains why unions are now devoting so much effort to organising, which is beginning to pay off. Union membership in the UK increased last year for the first time since 1980. Last year incidentally union membership in the United States increased by 600,000 - quite a turn around. 

 To conclude I would repeat a statement made thirty years ago by the Irish politician Conor Cruise O’Brien. He said “we have to give young people an acceptable vision of their role in society” and an acceptable vision cannot be one of a split society. That is what we are about and I believe we will only achieve it through partnership. 

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