Politicians and pundits often lament the number of 50-64 year-olds retiring early or being too ill to work since the pandemic. But recent figures show that the largest spike in inactivity in recent years has not been amongst middle-aged early retirees, but younger people – and especially amongst my fellow 18-24 year-old men.
The data from the Office for National Statistics show that the share of young Britons not looking for a job or working reached an unprecedented high of 31.9% in the months leading up to October. As well as being significantly higher than it was at the end of the 2019, the rate of increase is twice that amongst 50-64 year-olds.
Most strikingly, this rise has been driven overwhelmingly by young men. Since the early 1990s, the Resolution Foundation reports, economic inactivity amongst men has doubled. This means that, for the first time ever, more young men are out of work than women. The number of young men who have been unemployed for more than 12 months has grown by more than 20% since 1998.
It is easy to get carried away with quoting statistics. But behind the figures lies a genuine human tragedy. More young men without work means more young men without a reason to get up in the morning. It means more men without a career path, and a direction to get on in life. It means more young men excluding themselves from work through mental health problems and other illnesses.
What lies behind this historic shift? As Richard Reeves outlines in his book Of Boys and Men, relatively recent changes in our post-industrial economic landscape and in social norms have reduced the social status of men. The corollary to more young men at university or in leading professions is a devaluation of the traditional male role as a primary breadwinner, especially for working-class men.
One would have to be an unreconstructed misogynist to argue the increased chances and freedoms for women are a bad thing. But the decline of male role-models has clearly left a generation of men feeling devalued, purposeless, and unhappy. Almost three million boys grow up in a household without a father; male suicide and incarceration rates remain far higher than female ones.
Whether it is so-called incels hooked on video games and online pornography or hooded youths loitering on street corners, young men are suffering from a crisis of purposelessness. This is as much economic as spiritual. Our changing economy means the jobs-for-life and clear career paths available to our grandfathers’ generations no longer exist.
But there is more to a career than just a chance to earn a wage and get on. There is the opportunity and discipline it teaches, the understanding that hard effort can win a reward and promotion. There is the satisfaction of a job well done, and a clear role not only within an organisation, but as an earner and provider for a wider family. Young men not only need jobs, but responsibilities.
That is why I would advocate for the re-introduction of a system of national service. Admittedly, such a thing is a long way off being on the political agenda. Not only because it would be an expensive experiment at a time of national belt-tightening, but because it is something that the armed forced are actively against. They need new technology and highly trained professional soldiers, not listless temporary conscripts.
Nonetheless, a revived system of national service would not only offer young men a purposeful way of spending their time, but also give them an opportunity to catch up with their female peers. The longer young men engage on such programs, the longer they would have to overcome the cognitive gap between men and women that Reeves identifies in his book. Joining the labour market or higher education at 20 or 21, rather than at 18, would provide men with more of a level playing field, especially if they have spent time learning self-discipline and practical skills. Whilst some countries such as Israel have a system of mixed-sex conscription, others such as Greece call up only young men. Either system would help young men, but I will assume the use of the latter.
Of course, such a programme need not be focused on the military alone. Modern systems of national service – like that encouraged by Emmanuel Macron in France – are designed as ‘collective projects’ designed to support charities and local governments. They encourage young people to gain an experience of discipline and collective endeavour, rather than mooching about at home.
Of course bringing back national service of some kind would not be a cure-all for economic inactivity. The Greek solution of using conscription to massage appalling youth unemployment statistics is not one a country with our healthy labour market need emulate; suggesting young men just need a bit more discipline will do little good for those with deep mental or physical illnesses.
Yet even floating a scheme like this would show that the Government understands the profound problems facing my generation of young men. We are never again going to see thousands of young men deployed to West Germany or Malaysia. But I imagine many would prefer a life with a little more square-bashing than one spent idle and unhappy.
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