We Must Act Now to Avoid Losing a Generation

02/02/2012 23:11 GMT | Updated 03/04/2012 10:12 BST

A report published yesterday by Tomorrow's People, an organisation I have been part of for more than 25 years, cast new light on the reality of the youth unemployment crisis.

The research, The Early Bird... Preventing Young People from becoming a NEET statistic, highlights a long-term trend in Britain that the number of youth 'NEETs' - people who are not in employment, education or training - has been rising for well over a decade, a deep-seated structural problem in society.

This is not merely symptomatic of the current economic crisis, a blame game that makes it all too easy to politicise the problem at hand. It is a long-term issue and a cause for serious concern.

Young core NEETs - those who face the most difficult employment and indeed life prospects - risk complete alienation from society. Benefits programmes are often expensive and cyclical, merely dealing with the problem when it arises, which for too many individuals comes with disheartening frequency and is all too little too late.

This is not a slight on those who receive benefits, the vast majority of whom would bite the hand off anyone offering work, but rather the current system used for supporting them.

Crucially the research has made clear the benefits of early intervention. If we intervene early (and by this I mean providing targeted support to those as young as 14) we can tackle the problem of youth NEETs - those leaving school with little to no qualifications.

Markers used to identify those vulnerable to becoming NEET include truanting, teenage smoking and, rather obviously but something that is frequently overlooked, simply asking teenagers what they aspire to do when they leave school. These have proven to be strong indicators of how someone's career will develop.

At the launch of this research this week Barry Sheerman MP, former chair of the Education and Skills Select Committee, championed the Dutch model, whereby benefits for those under 27 are available only if you are actively partaking in training. Elements of this approach should be mimicked in the UK with a focus on prevention - it is more cost effective to prevent a problem than to fix it.

We cannot abandon people that are not yet of working age. We cannot risk losing a generation. Whilst some may say it's prosaic to champion the importance of guaranteeing everyone the support they need during their youth, this research has underlined the immediacy of the crisis and is time to act now, so that we are not forced to pay later.