I was compelled to write this article, after reading a number of discussions and media coverage on the topic. I wanted to add my own contribution into the mix, as above all at almost 27 I’m probably still classed as young and I’ve seen how the negative effects of looking for work and finding that promising career impacts on young people disproportionately to the rest of society. I’ve also experienced the stress, the confusion and constant anxiety, that sadly goes hand in hand with finding a job. We hear ‘youth unemployment’ bounced around like a broken record, but what does this actually mean? It makes me angry when people produce an argument with little substance, accusing young people of all sorts of behaviours and assuming that everyone should just ‘get a job.’ As if it’s ever that easy. The hoops DWP make young people jump through quite frankly disgusts me and causes me to be very worried for my generation. I’ve seen people I’m close to try and fail in low paid, unsupported jobs, I’ve seen people I’m not close to struggle with this reality too. Many young people hit rock bottom on unpaid internships or workfare. Work experience is important and I have volunteered throughout my life- but any volunteering I have done has always been on my terms. When young people are forced to work for nothing to prevent losing their benefit, I see little value or ethical sustainability in these schemes. The sad reality is that an education or qualifications, means very little in a world so out of touch with the needs and desires of those who because of their age and lack of experience in the job market, seem to be widely discriminated against. I find it appalling that so many 16 year olds across the country are on low paid apprenticeships, working long hours in places like Subway and Starbucks. I fail to understand why it takes a year to learn how to make sandwiches or brew coffee, when older and higher paid employees can learn those skills in a days training. If you are young, but also have additional needs, not always catered for in the fast paced society we live in today- the job market is so much more of a challenge to break into. I didn’t have a part time job during my time at university, partly because of circumstance and my decision to live at home- but also because many of the jobs advertised as ‘student jobs’ I wouldn’t have been able to do, and I don’t say this often as my Dyspraxia is never an excuse- but the student job market doesn’t have much opportunity for those with very specific strengths and abilities- they don’t factor in any possibilities for those who struggle with some of the most basic of tasks and often favour those that are good or average at everything. However, not many people are fortunate to have the choice that I did, so are forced into unsuitable jobs, and as a consequence struggle on with little support or understanding.
An article that recently struck a chord with me was something I read in the Guardian entitled I’m Dyspraxic not useless. This really resonated with me, and articulates many of the experiences I faced growing up and my current feelings towards the difficulties I’ve encountered in using my skills to gain sustainable paid employment, I could have written much of what she described. At school, we were pushed to go onto university, with little careers guidance, other than ‘you must get a degree.’ I think I saw a careers advisor once when I was in sixth form, most people were surprised to see me doing my A levels, so were probably baffled as to what to do with me next. I remember during this meeting with the careers advisor, it was a cold, frosty day and I went to see him in the morning. (not entirely sure why I remember those bits of largely irrelevant details- it must be a Dyspraxic thing!) Nevertheless you get a bit of context. I went in with my heart set of doing an English Language degree but came out with a decision to do History and Politics- I’m not sure how it’s possible to make such a change of direction, in a short meeting that probably didn’t even last half an hour. If nothing else, this tells you something about the state of careers advice in our secondary schools, even though I had this meeting ten years ago, I’m informed by my reliable sixteen and seventeen year old sources, that not much has changed in the way of careers advice in schools today. If I’d come forward as someone, who just wanted to write- they’d probably have been totally lost as to what to do with me. I wouldn’t have fitted into any box. I’ve always enjoyed writing, as it was something where I could shine but kept my writing at school to academic essays and concentrated on the journalism (and bits of poetry) in secret because I feared not being taken seriously as a writer. My ambitions were incredibly different to my peers, and I was well aware of this.
As I’ve mentioned before my abilities are very specific, I’m hopeless at maths, science and anything vaguely practical- this discounts me from the highly regarded STEM subjects, the more lucrative and available industries. However my strengths lie in words and humanities- I took all essay based subjects at A level, and excelled in these because I could write- I was good at this and in comparison to the massive discrepancies at GCSE, when I struggled to score D’S and E’s in Maths and science (finally just scraping C’s in my final exams) but managed A’s and B’s in everything else. Whereas all of my grades at A level more or less represented a similar ability. Apart from music, I struggled with some of the more practical aspects of what turned out to be one of the hardest qualifications I’ve ever undertaken in my life. There’s a lot to do to gain a music A level, and sometimes I found processing all of the information overwhelming. My fiddle teacher had to re-arrange my final performance piece, because despite coping fairly well with its complexities at the start of the year, by spring my fingers just couldn’t get around the coordination required. I think I was just incredibly exhausted by this stage too, and personal statements were eating my life, it’s not always wise to have a live A level music performance to the scariest examiner I have ever met, around the same time as writing what turned out to be a small novel of personal statement. When I was away from the classroom, I found so much enjoyment and comfort from music, and this was more important to me. Being able to enjoy music as a hobby, got me through everything else I found challenging and made the common lack of belief in my abilities by some teachers easier to bare.
Life after the relative safety and security of undergraduate education became increasingly uncertain, I lacked a vision or clear direction that I wanted to travel towards. So like many 21 year olds, I took some time out to evaluate the situation, by going to India for three months. I gained a place on a voluntary programme overseas that was right for me, but years later I learned that there are many so called ‘voluntary’ organisations who exploit the good nature of young people. I had a very different experience with another organisation, when I applied for some potential voluntary work overseas three years on from India. I will never forget the words: ‘I am totally unable to support someone with Dyspraxia’- this begs the question as to why they are working with young people in the first place, and causes great concerns for those who are more vulnerable than me and unable to articulate their dissatisfaction (said lightly) as well as I can.
It was only when I came back form India and became a job seeker for the first time, that the real learning started. I learned more about the world than I ever did at school- at least it was more relevant learning. I remember being sent on a work program, and spending my time teaching the man next to me how to use a computer- there was no differentiation between abilities, once you became unemployed, you just became a ‘job seeker’ and if you’re a job seeker under 25, you’ll often be treated worse. I was bright, articulate, had a vague ambition to work with young people and wanted to do well. I met people who had been stuck in the system for such a long time, that they found it impossible to get out. It made that guys day, me sitting with him and taking the time to go through a basic internet search- empathy costs nothing, but seems to be a skill that is widely unavailable within the civil service. My natural empathy and abilities to connect with people, enabled me to go onto achieve my Masters in Community and Youth Work. However even in youth work, I’ve hit problems- mainly due to the distinct lack of jobs, thanks to the terrible cuts to services and the realisation that surviving on sessional work alone would be impossible if I didn’t live at home. I’m also only suited to specific areas of youth work, that unfortunately are the jobs everyone is going for. I love the work I do though, but there’s just not enough of it. A career in writing and journalism, now seems to be an obvious choice because it is literally the only thing I can do well. I don’t have to write in secret anymore, as I have discovered that people actually respect me for my written word. We can only improve prospects for young people out of work and those who have recently graduated, if society creates the time to listen, the empathy to understand and the compassion to support. There’s a great quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that is so relevant here; ‘Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it is stupid.’