UK's unemployment level hits 17-year high

Austerity measures, prolonged economic weakness and a eurozone crisis have taken their toll on Britain’s work force, with figures published on Wednesday showing the number of people unemployed is at the highest level for 17 years.

Britain’s government has staked its reputation on a strategy of cutting costs and jobs in the public sector while trying to boost private sector growth. Today’s unemployment data, which shows that unemployment is rising and that women and young people are feeling the worst effects, raises doubts over whether that strategy is working, and leaves Prime Minister David Cameron open to criticism that he is taking away opportunities for some parts of society.

The highest level since 1994, 2.64 million people were unemployed in Britain at the end of October—128 000 more than in the previous quarter, according to government statistics. Britain’s unemployment rate is now 8.3%, up 0.4% on the quarter and at its highest level since 1996.

In particular, unemployment among 16- to 24-year-olds has reached the highest level since records of youth employment began to be kept in 1992 with 1.03 million young people out of work.

“I’ve applied for hundreds and hundreds jobs and not got anything,” 17-year-old Tamika Dodd from North London said.
“I keep getting told I don’t have experience, but they won’t let me get any.”

Tamika, who left college because she “wanted to earn her own money” is convinced her youth is against her in the sales assistant and receptionist jobs she has applied for.

“I keep being told I don’t suit the job,” she said. “What does that mean? They don’t even know me.”

Getting a bad wrap
This section of society—labelled NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training)—was held widely responsible for the riots and looting across Britain in the summer and is now finding it hard to get work.

“Young people do get a very bad press at the moment and employers are getting reluctant to take them on,” said Emma Aeppli, who works for Camden Jobtrain, a north London charity that helps young people find work.

“There are also simply not as many apprenticeships and training schemes for young people as there once were and they don’t have the experience to just walk into a job,” she said.

The figures open old wounds—unemployment under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher hit three million in the early 1980s and gave the Conservative party a reputation for not caring about joblessness.

Statistics show that in the third quarter of the year, 67 000 jobs were cut in the public sector while only 5 000 private sector jobs were created. The public sector cuts also hit women hard because they are more likely than men to work in the public sector, pushing the number of women unemployed up by 45 000 to 1.1 million, the highest since 1988.

‘Bad news’
Dave Prentis, leader of the public sector union Unison, said the figures showed the government strategy is failing.

“The government continues to ignore the human cost and push ahead with its hard and fast cuts, clinging to the hope that a struggling private sector can pick up the pieces,” he said. “These figures deliver a cold hard dose of reality.”

Prime Minister David Cameron was careful this time to describe the unemployment figures as “bad news and a tragedy for all those involved” and promised to help people find work.

The youth unemployment figures have allowed opposition leader Ed Miliband of the Labour Party to repeat his accusation the government is “betraying a whole generation of young people”.

But Tim Leunig, an economic historian at the London School of Economics, said youth unemployment is a worldwide problem, and it not unique to Britain.

“People just don’t want to employ people without any skills, and if you are 16 or 17 and job hunting, the chances are you are doing that with very few qualifications,” he said.

Tough living
Leunig pointed to data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that showed that young people in Britain are actually more likely to be employed in Britain than in other countries, including Germany, Sweden and France.

The organisation said unemployment across the eurozone had risen to 10.3% in October, though there are wide variations between Spain’s jobless rate of 14.9% and Germany, where unemployment fell to 5.5%. The US had an unemployment rate of 8.6%, slightly lower than in the previous month.

“British unemployment is not that bad compared to other countries but it is still a tough thing to live with,” Leunig said. “We had hoped we would be coming out of recession by now. In any other era we would be close to improving. We certainly wouldn’t be expecting unemployment to be rising the rate it is.”

The danger appears to be that the longer it takes to find work, the harder it becomes.

“When I go for a job, people ask me what I’ve been doing in the last few months and if I tell them I’ve been looking for a job I can see they don’t believe me,” said 16-year-old Asharani Kaur, who has been looking for work since the summer.

“They ask why I don’t get a job in a shop or something when that’s what I’m trying to do.”—Sapa-AP

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