It seems obvious that high levels of unemployment are directly linked with the performance of the economy. However, the discourse and public policy surrounding unemployment has a tendency to ignore the impact of the economic cycle, and instead focus on the personal failings of the unemployed themselves. So the focus is instead placed on their lack of skills and poor work habits, rather than the failure of the Capitalist system to provide enough jobs for the working population. There is a blame culture in relation to unemployment, which depicts the unemployed as lazy and scroungers, instead of unfortunate. Nowhere is this bias more in evidence, than in the public policies and discourse surrounding youth unemployment. The fragmented base and political inexperience of the young unemployed makes them an easy target for a neoliberal ideology that wishes to remove collective responsibility for economic misfortune and instead place the blame for unemployment onto the shoulders of the individual.
Shockingly even agencies designed to advocate on behalf of young people have embraced this neoliberal agenda on unemployment. For instance, with Youth Unemployment in Ireland: The Forgotten Generation the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) commissioned the only qualitative research project in Ireland on the actual experience of the young unemployed during this recession (O’Connor 2011). It is based on 90 interviews with unemployed youth from a cross section of backgrounds and areas. It is extremely sound on dealing with the despair that comes with unemployment; highlighting the long term scarring that can occur from the stress, anxiety and depression resulting from unemployed life (O’Connor 2011, 8-9). However, it also plays into the dominant narrative by focusing on the “missing skill sets” of young people in relation to job seeking rather than on the lack of jobs in the economy (O’Connor 2011, 34-35). In fact, the only structural cause of unemployment the research mentions is the “structural” problem of the long term young unemployed from disadvantaged backgrounds (O’Connor 2011, 29).
The report’s recommendations seem hopelessly inadequate to address the scale of the problem and are couched in the neoliberal language of consumerism rather than citizens’ rights. For instance, it recommends that employment agencies (such as Solas) become a “one stop shop” for employment advice, that a “client charter” is developed and that “customer service” be improved. Added to this, they strangely recommend a mental health screening programme to deal with the fall-out from youth unemployment, when it seems obvious that a job creation programme would achieve many of the same ends without having to psychologically assess a large proportion of the nation’s youth (O’Connor 2011, 67).
The lack of radical (or even Social Democratic) reforms included in the NYCI report is less surprising when you consider the research advisory group that commissioned the study (which was carried out by a private firm; OCS Consulting). It consisted of a three person panel, made up of one representative from the NYCI, one from the Saint Vincent de Paul (SVP) and one from the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC). So obviously the remit of this study would be influenced by the perspective of charity and business; rather than a perspective of rights, reform and state led job creation. In fact, the study’s objectives were limited to what are perceived to be “practical” recommendations for the future and to isolate gaps in only the existing state services (O’Connor 2011, 16).
The NYCI shows how state bodies that are supposed to represent disadvantaged groups can be co-opted to serve a neo-liberal agenda; reinforcing the status-quo by shutting down potential areas of resistance and dissent. No doubt the people involved in the youth council are well meaning individuals, trying to do their best for the problems facing the nation’s youth. However, this is exactly the problem with such bodies, their secure and somewhat privileged positions within the establishment means that their response to the radical problems facing unemployed youth are hopelessly inadequate to the scale of the injustice at hand. And essentially their unambitious policy aims serve as part of the oppressive architecture of the neoliberal state.
O’Connor, H. 2011. Youth Unemployment In Ireland: The Forgotten Generation. Dublin: National Youth Council Of Ireland.