Alan France and David Craig: Tough times for the young

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Young people make up 45 per cent of our unemployed. Photo / Thinkstock
Young people make up 45 per cent of our unemployed. Photo / Thinkstock

The New Zealand Herald's Divided City series showed that after 25 years of technological and social reform, the gaps between the rich and poor in Auckland have remained stubbornly embedded. About the same time as the series, figures came out showing youth are hardest hit of all in the current employment downturn.

These are tough times for our kids and it is about time we started to recognise this. They are New Zealand's future and should be seen as our greatest asset, yet they are in the front line taking the major impact of the difficult times we all face.

One in four young people aged 15 to 19 who are looking for work is unemployed. This is an unemployment rate over three times that of the entire working population. In certain parts of the country these figures are even higher and Maori and Pacific groups are most likely to be unemployed.

Young people make up a higher proportion of our unemployment rate (45 per cent) and they are more economically disadvantaged than young people in any other OECD country. New Zealand also now has the lowest rate of young people continuing in education in any OECD country and as figures released last week show we now have over 83,000 young people not in education, employment or training.

But it gets worse. Those that are in work are struggling to find jobs that are permanent and full-time or jobs that provide a decent income. Young people are more likely to be working in low-skilled service and retail service jobs and working in part time insecure or temporary occupations.

Figures released last week show a decline in full time work (13,000 positions lost) and an increase in part-time jobs being available (15,000 gained) meaning this trend will continue.

Our best longitudinal studies, including the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development study, show that those who are most disadvantaged- both early in life and at crucial life course junctures like youth- are at greater risk of short and long term lower wages, and of needing social assistance and benefits just to get by.

These figures show that many young people in New Zealand are under significant pressure in their everyday lives. 'Getting by', let alone 'getting on' in life is becoming increasingly difficult yet we see very little recognition of how tough these times are for the young.

In fact, we, as a society, are quick to condemn them or blame them for the problems they face. We are also quick to judge them, to accuse them of being disrespectful and to show them little tolerance for their mistakes.

What we see across a range of media and political debates is a perception of youth as a problem to be managed who need to be treated harshly when they step out of line or make a mistake.

What gets missed in much of this debate is the risks young people face. For example, it is not surprising that New Zealand has a growing mental health problem amongst the young or one of the highest youth suicide rates in the OECD.

As a recent Mental Health Commission Report (2011) said, 'Compared with other OECD countries, New Zealand has a higher suicide rate for males aged 15 to24 years than in any other country except Iceland and Finland. The New Zealand female youth suicide rate in 2008 was higher than that of any other OECD country, including Finland, Japan, Sweden and the Republic of Korea'.

These are some of the risks we run if we do not tackle this problem head on. Not only will the gap between rich and poor remain but the health of our young people is at risk. It is time government invested in our young and took the challenges they face seriously.

* Professor Alan France is Head of the Department of Sociology at The University of Auckland. Associate Professor David Craig is at the National Centre for Lifecourse Research, the University of Otago.

- NZ Herald

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