If you believe Groucho Marx, "the only real laughter comes from despair". So perhaps it's a sign of just how bad the times are for jobless young people that they're the subject of a new E4 sitcom, Drifters. NEETs (young people Not in Education, Employment or Training) numbers from the Office for National Statistics certainly paint a bleak picture. Its figures for the third quarter have now breached the one million mark for the 5th consecutive year, with 1,073,000 16-24 year olds currently disengaged.
And we're not just talking temporary setbacks; 282,000 16-24 year olds have been out of work for more than 12 months, up 15,000 on the same period last year. David Cameron says he wants the country "to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently." If we carry on like this we'll have little choice; research shows that some of these young people will now never work, while those who do find employment will face years of wage scarring.
As for the human cost, a survey by University and College Union (UCU) of 1000 NEETs found that a third suffer from depression, more than a third rarely leave the house and two-fifths feel they are 'not part of society'. But, there's a glimmer of hope in UCU's findings; 71 per cent said that with support they could contribute 'a lot to this country'. They're right. I see it every day at the charity I lead, City Year UK.
For the last 25 years in the US, City Year has been spearheading the idea that volunteering has the potential to not only give young people a stake in society, but to develop skills. A ten-year American survey shows a clear link between volunteering and employability; volunteers had a 27 per cent higher chance of finding a job after being out of work than non-volunteers and the odds increased to 50 per cent for those without high school qualifications.
That simple solution is beginning to make inroads in the UK. City Year launched in London in 2010 and as of this September we have 150 young people from diverse backgrounds volunteering for a whole year across two cities. From Monday to Thursday these 18-25 year olds, known as corps members, serve in schools in deprived areas as near-peer mentors, role models and tutors. Fridays are devoted to the volunteers' personal and professional skills development, in conjunction with our corporate partners.
Bassie, 23, is a prime example of service's life-changing potential. He says: "I've always endeavoured to make a difference to others' lives and have a positive impact on those I encounter, so when the opportunity arose for me to be part of City Year I was sure that I wanted to be involved...I can empathise with the hard to reach kids and hopefully motivate them to strive, particularly as I grew up in Hackney were the school I serve in is based."
He says: "the media stigmatises today's youth as lazy, unwilling to work and quick to quit. This one year volunteering programme diminishes this common stereotypical view by empowering us to prove otherwise.
"Giving responsibility and instilling self-worth and confidence in us is priceless, especially for me who was out of work for a year. This long period of time demoralised me and I began questioning my capabilities. As a day each week is devoted to my personal career development I can regain my self-belief. By the end of this programme I will have a clear career goal and strategy as to how I am going to achieve it."
City Year's still small here, but we're part of a movement which is gaining momentum: youth social action. Defined as practical action in the service of others, proven to have a double benefit to young people themselves and the community, it's happening somewhere near you! Generation Change, a partnership organisation of 18 leading social action charities (of which City Year is part), has recently mapped the action of half a million young people in over 20,000 communities and schools in every part of the UK.
This week also saw the launch at Buckingham Palace of Step Up To Serve, a new cross-sector, cross party campaign to double the number of 10-20 year olds involved in youth social action to over 50 per cent by 2020 and involve an additional 1.7 million young people. A national pledge initiative called #iwill included personal commitments from HRH The Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition.
City Year pledged to expand to serve five cities by 2020, with 1,000 corps members serving 70,000 children across 100 schools.
Government, the private, public and voluntary sectors are taking some big strides towards making social action a normal part of growing up in Britain. We have the opportunity to broaden that ambition to also make youth unemployment unheard of.