We recently learned that Northern Ireland is blazing a trail for young people and that trail is heading in precisely the wrong direction. Right now, 3.3 million adults aged under-35 are living with their parents, the numbers are rising and they are highest of all in this region. Worse, Northern Ireland's young adults are also at the bleeding edge of unemployment statistics – under 25 year olds are now five times more likely to be unemployed than over 25s. Twin hardships of worklessness and homelessness have focused very precisely on the younger generation. The question is: Why?
For too many, the answer is that young people themselves are to blame and a range of derogatory acronyms have been coined to describe their failure. These range from the bureaucratic - NEETS (Not in Employment, Education or Training) -to the undiplomatic - KIPPERS (Kids in Parents' Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings). More often than not, a certain vintage of haughty politician (or newspaper columnist) can be relied on to chide the young for leeching from older generations or criticise them for "lacking the grit" as Tory Nick Hurd put it recently, "to get a job". If that was not a very civil comment from the man we must call Minister for Civil Society, it was also mistaken.
It cannot possibly be true that the UK has raised an entire generation of layabouts or that young adults are merrily swapping the dream of a stable, independent adult life for co-habiting with their mum and dad. It is equally mistaken to blame the 'older generation' or the 'babyboomers' for their children's difficulties. There is no risk of a generation war. On the contrary, the weak position of young adults is forcing different generations to bind together for longer. And, nor are these problems purely the result of the global recession, though a long freeze in job creation in both the public and private sectors has certainly not helped.
No, the simple fact is that Britain has offered far too few tools to the new generation now entering adulthood. Their labour market problems do not end with unemployment. The building blocks of their careers have been steadily kicked away. Fewer firms offer paid, accredited training today than even 20 years ago. And when young people do find work it is often unstable, agency or part-time.
The situation is bleakest in housing. Quite simply, our housing market now serves the interests of speculators not residents. House prices and rents have been allowed to rocket because too few homes have been built and an older generation let-down by pension shortfalls has been encouraged to become buy-to-let landlords. Young people have been priced out.
If there are obvious losers, they are the families of tomorrow - hundreds of thousands of couples delaying marriage until they can afford a house. Life at the family home also has consequences for couple formation rates - anyone who has tried to take a date back to their parents' house knows why.
What about the public sector? For sure recent cuts have hit the young hard but, more concerning, is the rise in public sector debt. In Northern Ireland for example, investment in schools and hospitals and other public infrastructure has been purchased, not with taxes, but with private lending. So, the same generation that lives with its parents and is less likely to be employed must also service a £7.3bn PFI bill - with more than half owing after 2025. Orders don't get much taller.
These problems are not new. The proportion of young people living with their parents has been rising since the mid-1990s and may rise further - the London-based Resolution Foundation say it will hit 40 per cent by 2020. They are confident that nothing will be done to arrest the trend in the meantime. Parents and adult children are doing what they can as individuals. There is more we can do as citizens, voters, and employers but we must all start by admitting that we have not raised a generation who lack "grit" but one which lacks a ladder to independence. Until that happens the path to adulthood will continue to lead back to the childhood bedroom.
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