The Blog

The Psychological Ills of Youth Unemployment

Brian Spencer takes another look at youth unemployment, this time considering the psychological ills that joblessness brings to young people.

Things really don't look good: GDP growth in the UK is feeble; the reverberations from the euro zone debt crisis rumble on; the largest economy in the world, America, is embroiled in pedigree Congressional brinkmanship over the fiscal cliff impasse, pushing the economy towards stall speed; and in China, the engine of global growth, indices show the economy is contracting.

All these economic forces have come together to produce a toxic environment and a bleak forecast as we look to the future.

But there is a dark and rolling subtext to the gloomy macro geo-politico-economic story that scarcely, if ever, makes the driving news flow: that's the story of the beleaguered young person and the associated travails of youth unemployment.

I have already looked at the facts and figures associated with this most troubling, but under-discussed and politically inert, topic; here (, here ( and here (

The cause of the youth demographic crisis is not simply the fault of the economic crisis: rather there are a number of other contributory factors including a deflating youth culture that punishes ambition, as I looked at here ( Another major drag on youth employment figures is the structural imbalances that exist between education and the real world, the net result of which makes for masses of real work illiterate young adults, an issue I hope to address in the future. Other factors include family issues, behavioral problems and so on.

Following this, we can say that we know broadly the causes of youth unemployment. However, what are the effects of chronic youth joblessness?

Conjectures making the headlines have included suggestions that the ongoing economic malaise will have a scarring effect on the today's youth that will be carried on by tomorrow's adults. Others have put it that the lingering employment fatigue could lead to a Lost Decade or a Lost Generation; or as I put it, a proverbial white elephant of demographic proportions.

But again this is the tendency of news flow to consider the macro element of the problem, ignoring the micro analysis.

Looking to correct this I want to consider the mix of feelings, stigmas and effects that confront the young person hit by chronic joblessness.

A great number of academic reports have been written on the matter of youth unemployment and all recognise the phenomenon as a profound societal problem.

Firstly, it goes without saying that being a young adult is a critical stage of life especially with regards to psychosocial development and identity formation. And central to these processes is the job place. The world of work provides opportunities for learning and for showing creativity, and for developing social contacts and independence.

Secondly, young adulthood is also a phase of life that normally involves a series of ritualistic status passages: fundamentally important transitions from high school to university, from the place of education to the workplace and from the family home to one's own residence.

A delay in the developmental process towards adulthood and a lag in the passing of fundamental life transitions may start a process of social and institutional exclusion, which for some young adults could be lead to at the very least, unfulfilled potential, and at worst, a downward spiral towards civic alienation.

Ostensibly work has a core intrinsic value which, when missing, can have detrimental effects on the mental wellbeing of the unemployed young person. Feelings of general vulnerability, inferiority, worthlessness and uselessness, and depression are most common among jobless young people. On top of these feelings, an absence from the world of work can defer the psychological development and social skill set of the young person.

Dealing with these emotions and realisations as well as rejection after rejection has a profoundly damaging effect that is lasting in its scope.

Certainly confronting numerous rejections only compounds the psychological ills of youth unemployment. Seeing one dream smashed after another can embed deep resentment and a shift away from goal-setting; seeing it as better to have not tried, than to have tried and failed.

The mental health problems are very real and rigorous methodological testing can attest to that: a report available here ( said that as compared to their employed peers, young unemployed persons have a distinctly higher risk for health-related problems.

The young and jobless are particularly vulnerable to mental health and psychosocial problems leading to an increase in depression and a poorer quality of life, but also for objective health indicators especially when considering the higher risk for suicidal behaviour among the unemployed youth. This is also reflected in the health behaviour of young jobless persons especially with regard to alcohol and cigarette consumption depending on the employment status.

Speaking myself, having passed 2 year mark post graduation I have only a scarce and fleeting sense of confidence, thanks only to my quality CV, but that is easily detracted thanks to the countless rejections and by my bi-monthly trip to the jobs and benefits office as well as those to the Bank of Mum and Dad.

I describe my situation as a negative feedback loop: I'm not earning money so I can't buy the bike I need, fix my kayak that I want to use, buy gym membership for the gym I want to go to, taste food at the nice restaurant I see every day, go on holiday like my friends or buy nice clothes like the ones in the magazine. These all come together to make for a bleak outlook on life.

These problems engender a sense of complete inability and sit heavily on top of the minuscule regard of self-belief that I now hold for myself.

I certainly believe that mental health and psychological ills are inexorably linked to youth unemployment.

I feel the misery. I know the sense of worthlessness, and the deep longing for a place in society; the desire for direction, and for a path to travel along.

I make attempts daily and am swiftly knocked back. And until an about change comes around it seems that I will have to remain adrift.

I take some degree of solace from the education and experience backstop that I can avail of. But if being jobless has such a pernicious effect on my life, how must the countless in the dole queue who have no support network, no loving family, no experiences, no qualifications, no foreign languages and no discernible skills feel?

I'm deeply worried for graduates like myself, but even more so for the young person who has gone through life adrift.