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The cost of youth unemployment

Paul Gregg and Lindsey Macmillan

In hard times, young people face two hurdles to finding work.  First, firms tend to hold onto their existing experienced staff but stop recruitment to reduce their workforce. This collapse in new vacancies hits young people hardest. Second, with more unemployment comes more choice of potential employees for firms who are hiring. Firms favour previous experience placing young people in a catch 22 situation of not being able to get the experience they need to get work because they can’t get the work in the first place. For the least educated or those who are unlucky enough to experience long periods out of work now, it is increasingly hard to get that break that opens the door to the labour market.

As the number of youths who are out of work continues to rise the exchequer is left counting the cost. Each 16-17 year old in receipt of benefits costs an average of £3,660 a year whilst each unemployed 18-24 year old who claims costs an average of £5,600 a year. Even though many young people don’t claim benefits, just 19% of 16-17 year olds not in education or employment and 65% of 18-24 year olds with the sheer number of young people out of work, plus the additional tax and NI revenue lost through the lack of earnings, the numbers are non-negligible. In total, the current cost of youth unemployment to the exchequer is £5.3 billion per year. The productivity loss to the economy, often calculated as the wage foregone to measure the output lost, is £10.7 billion. The large numbers not claiming benefits and the low value of benefits relative to potential earnings makes an important point that work incentives are very strong for this group.

On top of these current costs, there are also long-term scars to youth unemployment in the form of future unemployment spells and lower wages. We can see from previous generations’ experiences of youth unemployment that the longer the period spent out of work in youth, the more time spent out of work later in life and the lower potential wages were when in work. This evidence on the future costs of youth unemployment comes from two UK birth cohorts that track all babies born in a window for the rest of their lives. By chance, the participants in the first cohort were aged 21 when the 1980s recession hit and in the second cohort, the participants were aged 20 when the 1990s recession hit. Around one in five young people in the first cohort spent over 6 months out of work before age 23, and it was similar in the second. Furthermore these people spent about 20% of their time unemployed 5 years later and 15% even 12 years later.

For males in the second birth cohort, an extra month out of work before age 25 raised the proportion of time out of work between age 26 and 30 by three quarter of a per cent; an extra year out of work in youth led to 10 months more unemployment later in life. It is a very similar story for wages with an extra month unemployed when young associated with 1% lower wages in their early thirties. It’s possible that these legacies may not reflect just the pure effect of youth unemployment but also that those experiencing more unemployment are less well educated and come from deprived backgrounds. The great advantage of the birth cohort studies is that so much is known about the young person’s childhood from their education to their attitudes and beliefs, their health, their wider circumstances and almost as much is known about their parents.  The evidence suggests that about half of the later lower wages and higher unemployment exposure stems from these background differences between people and about half is a result of the unemployment itself.

The cost to the individual’s future is therefore large. However, it doesn’t end there. There is also a future cost to the public purse in terms of future benefit claims and tax revenues lost from lower earnings as a result of this scarring. Estimates from the second birth cohort suggest that the average unemployed young man will cost the exchequer a further £2,900 in future costs with the average unemployed young woman costing £2,300 a year. Aggregating these up in the context of the current youth unemployment crisis leads to further future costs to the exchequer of £2.9 billion. The future productivity losses in terms of output lost are estimated to be £6.7 billion. If we add the exchequer costs together to give the combined future and current costs of youth unemployment (discounted to adjust future costs to be equivalent to today’s) the total cost to the exchequer is therefore £28 billion. These numbers suggest that doing nothing about youth unemployment is and will continue to cost us dear.

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