An Old Git Remembers: The Last Time Youth Unemployment Was This Bad

Youth unemployment in the UK went over the 1 million mark this week. It’s not been this bad, we hear, since the early 90s: see the chart in the BBC News story on it: Youth unemployment. As this shows, the peak was really in 1992: and it just happens, that’s when I first came onto the labour market. As I approach the grand old age of 42, may I offer you a Werther’s Original and take you back to the Britain of 1992, for a brief flurry of inappropriate unemployment nostalgia?

My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless' - 1992 wasn't too bad if you filled your head with guitar noise

1992 was the year Leeds won the title and Happy  Mondays released Yes … Please. Quite a year then, ahem. Finding a grim employment situation when I graduated in ’91, I took off travelling for seven months, hoping things would look better in ’92 when I got back. The plan had been to line up a job before I went, but it soon became apparent that was hopelessly unrealistic. On my return in April ’92, John Major had just won the election, the Rodney King riots had just happened in Los Angeles and footballers had started wearing massive shorts again, after years of increasingly figure-hugging numbers. And I didn’t have a job.

I was only a few months on the Bru (as it’s known in Belfast, or at least was then) and I landed on my feet with a job in a law firm in London. So it wasn’t exactly Boys From The Black Stuff. But even for someone who ostensibly came out unscathed, graduating at a time of high youth unemployment had a lasting impact.

"Let's go to work", as not that many people said in 1992

Though I’d done a law degree, I’d realised already I didn’t want a legal career. I had been looking for a job in advertising or marketing, which my older brothers were already in. I even considered market research. But with a lot of big employers just not hiring graduates at all that year – and others starting to insist on people having something called a “relevant degree” – I was getting nowhere. After a few months, I started to panic about my chances of getting any kind of a break at all. I was 22, had not had a proper job before and had very few actual work-ready skills. I also had no experience at all of anything I actually wanted to do.

But I was lucky, because I’d done a law degree. Law firms were still taking people on and at least they couldn’t say I lacked a relevant degree. So I swallowed my pride, decided to reconcile myself to a career in law and (two years after my peers) started applying to law firms. I got into a decent one for the September 1994 intake and then secured a place in the College of Law for September 1993.  All I had to do was fill in a year as a paralegal (working for a law firm in an unqualified capacity), for which I got paid £13,000. That was not much even then for a year in London, especially given my interest in drinking large volumes of ale, dining out most nights, albeit that it was in the Deep Pan Pizza All-U-Can-Eat, not Chez Nico.

If you’re still following this interminable piece of navel-gazing, there is a point. It looked like a success story on paper, but the only thing was, I was doing the wrong career. As a result, I spent most of my 20s thinking work was something to be suffered rather than enjoyed. I saw my working life as so many wasted hours. It was 1998 before I made my leap into qualitative research and it transformed my whole outlook on life: I found there was such a thing as stimulating work. My detour had taken the first six years of my life post-university.

I’m sure many of today’s unemployed youngsters would give anything for such a stroke of misfortune. But if there is a learning at all, it’s that it can pay to play the long game: compromise, switch to something that’s not your first choice, but which still gives you some skills and which keeps you marketable. If you’re lucky, when things look more positive and buoyant in the economy, you may then be able to do something you really do want to do.

But today’s graduates don’t need any lessons from me I’m sure. They seem a more practical, realistic and work-ready bunch than my generation ever were. Many of us entered university with a naive attitude to what life would have in store for us afterwards. They on the whole have the right attitude. But the economy skewers them just the same.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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