Youth unemployment: a closer look at the figures

Last week’s labour market figures (PDF format, 333k) (on the Office for National Statistics website) once again revealed depressingly high levels of youth unemployment, leading Labour leader Ed Miliband to accuse the Prime Minister of ”betraying a whole generation of young people”.

The unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds edged up to 20.5% in the three months to the end of December 2010, while the number of unemployed young people rose a step closer to the one million mark, at 965,000.

Most coverage ran with the headline that youth unemployment hit a record high in the three months to the end of December 2010 (on the FT website).

It is true that both the rate and level of youth unemployment are at their highest since 1992, when the ONS began conducting the Labour Force Survey (LFS) in its current format. But it is also possible to go back further to the period between 1984 and 1992, catching the unemployment that followed from the early 1980s recession. 

During these years the ONS did carry out the LFS, but only once a year and focusing on the March to May period of each year. The ONS has sent me these pre-1992 estimates which it says are based on “broadly similar” definitions to the later figures, even though they are not “directly comparable.”

They show that the youth unemployment rate was 19.6% in Spring 1984, slightly higher than the rate of 18.8% recorded for March-May 2010 (note that these figures are not seasonally adjusted so cannot be compared with the latest published ones). So while we do not yet know what youth unemployment will turn out to be during the Spring of 2011, this suggests that so far, youth unemployment during the latest recession has not quite reached the heights seen in the 1980s.


In terms of numbers, there is a greater contrast between 2010 and the mid-1980s – a period when overall unemployment hit three million (and stayed above it between early 1983 and mid-1987) – than when looking at the rate.

Well over one million (1,224,000) people under 25 were unemployed in Spring 1984, 1,123,000 in Spring 1985 and 1,136,000 in Spring 1986. The ONS’s figure calculated on a broadly similar, non-seasonally adjusted basis for March to May 2010 is significantly below this at 861,000.

It remains to be seen what the jobs outlook will be like for young people in 2011, but most forecasters predict that it will be bleak.

Most think that there will be further rises in youth unemployment over 2011 (see the grim scenario outlined by the CIPD or the opinions of these economists surveyed by the Guardian) especially in view of the dismantling of government unemployment programmes targeted at this vulnerable group of workers (on the Telegraph website), and the public sector jobs cull (see this Work Foundation report).

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