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It’s impossible to avoid the onslaught of depressing economic statistics at the moment. I know because I’ve found myself actually trying.

Until recently I’ve been a conventional newspaper reader – delving with relish into the front pages and big stories and only dipping into the features and sports pages for brief, semi-distracted skim at the end.

But over the past couple of weeks, as the Eurozone crisis has delivered yet another pile of economic putrefaction to our door, I’ve noticed my habits have changed. I start with the back pages, poring earnestly over speculation about next year’s Olympic ping-pong, or marvelling at what a thoroughly decent fellow Carlos Tevez seems to be. After I am gorged reading about sports I don’t care about (and some I do) I dip into the book reviews or lifestyle section. Finally, when I can no longer delay the inevitable I brace myself and turn to my erstwhile friends the front pages, editorial and commentary pages. It is at this point, mid-grimace, that I typically hope my tube stop is coming soon.

But even if all the papers were to suddenly go the way of the News of the World, there would be no escaping the daily, lived reality of our ailing economy.

Nowhere is this perhaps more apparent, or more poignant, than in the case of the many young people trying in vain to carve out their niche in the working world. Most of us know young people struggling in this way, in what must be the toughest job markets in recent memory. And what’s different this time is the increasing proportion of highly qualified graduates and postgraduates struggling in the same way.

I’ll spare you the full statistical litany on youth unemployment because it is so familiar nowadays (and I know you’ll only skip back to the ping-pong). We’ve all heard that there are 1 million young unemployed, with nearly one in five 18-24 year olds classed as ‘NEET’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Among these, a fifth tell researchers they think that life is not worth living, and more than a third claim to be “often” or “always” depressed. For those swayed by more hard headed arguments, the costs to the economy in financial support alone is estimated at £4.6 billion a year.

The Coalition’s response has been to focus on creating incentives for firms to take on more young workers as apprentices or in subsidised work experience programmes. There has also been a drive to increase the volume of young people studying Maths and English for longer, and to increase the opportunity for high calibre vocational and technical education.

The encouragement of key technical skills and competencies can only be a good thing. And no one would object to the expansion of work opportunities in firms that would otherwise not be opening their doors to new employees at all. But it’s hard to see how, without the demand for those firms’ goods and services from key markets like the Eurozone, many of the temporary apprenticeships and work experience placements will result in sustainable jobs over the longer term.

What seems to be lacking in this strategy is a strand dedicated not to shoehorning more young people into existing firms that currently have little use for them, but to unlocking the entrepreneurial potential of this so-called ‘lost’ generation. Because here, I believe, may lie glimmers of hope.

As a Generation Xer who entered the working world at the start of the Noughties, what seemed to me then to be a pretty inhospitable graduate job market now seems like a bonanza. In retrospect I think my cohort had it pretty easy, and were also relatively conformist bunch in terms of their career choices. Perhaps that’s because in the first, optimistic years of the new Labour administration it didn’t feel like there was so much politically to push against, and because it was the start of a long boom in the growth of jobs in the financial services and public sector. We also largely pre-dated the expansion of globalisation and international migration that would transform the UK labour market in the decade that followed. I would also speculate that not having grown up with the transformational power of the internet, we were the last generation to grow up expecting our careers to unfold in predictable and conventional ways.

By contrast, Gen Y are a generation that have grown up with an economy where huge value can be created and destroyed at the click of a button, competition is global, and where seemingly stable livelihoods can give be disrupted or even disappear at the drop of a hat. They are increasingly priced out of higher education and denied access to the kinds of conventional opportunities, jobs and progression that previous generations took for granted.

What strikes me, and what I greatly admire, about the teens and early twentysomethings I’ve encountered socially or professionally in the last couple of years since the start of the downturn is their toughness and adaptability. They have a cussed determination to make things work with the meagre opportunities available, coupled with strong entrepreneurial instincts – particularly when it comes to technology – as well as humour and stoicism in the face of repeated failure and rejection.

Such attributes are typical of successful entrepreneurs. So while Government and employers try to increase the supply of jobs on offer from existing businesses, the rest of us should be grasping the opportunity to channel this generation’s enormous entrepreneurial potential. And thankfully there are a host of charitable and social enterprise organisations trying to do exactly that. We can’t underestimate the scale of the problem, and we know not everyone can be the next Mark Zuckerberg, but neither should we be content to rely on the existing job market, when there is the potential to create new ones.

With that in mind, the RSA is excited to be running a challenge competition with Google, FutureGov and Livity to find entrepreneurial ways  to harness the web to help young people into employment and education. It’s the latest in Google’s series of “Interactivism” challenges aimed at improving the web as a force for social good.

The challenge launches next week, on the 5th December, so all the details will be posted here on the Simpl web platform developed and hosted by our partners at FutureGov. But in summary we will be inviting ideas to be submitted online throughout December and January, after which there will be a selection process and the best will go through to a 2 day “hackathon” event in which young people, entrepreneurs, designers, policymakers, experts and others will work with Google’s software engineers to turn their ideas into working prototypes. Beyond that we’ll be looking for further venture support to help them develop a commercial application. At every step of the project, young people have worked with us to design the approach.

In order to inform and inspire innovation among challenge participants, the RSA has undertaken background research into the issue of youth exclusion from employment and education. The research has been organised into a framework publication for social and technological innovation in this area, which will be published next week. It , and the challenge as a whole, has been refined and developed via focus group testing with young people, and a subsequent larger roundtable exercise with young people, businesses, charities, government bodies and experts in the field.

A snippet of reactions from young people and a stakeholder after the roundtable is below: (NB it was shot on a phone – so excuse the quality!)

The RSA’s framework document describes a set of barriers, innovations, and design principles for success which will hopefully get the entrepreneurial juices flowing. All will be revealed next week, but as a teaser for those of you who want a head start here are some of the topline feedback we got from participants at the roundtable:

  1. Take an holistic approach which takes into account the specific needs of young people and their life journeys. Labelling a whole group as “NEET” reduces a highly diverse group to a single attribute, and doesn’t reflect variation in circumstances
    1. Use the web to strengthen offline support relationships, with potential mentors, advisors, peers, employers, investors and educators, as well as with their existing circle of friends and family whose unwavering support – and sometimes friendly pressure - they need.  Also find ways to build offline characteristics (such as personalisation) into the web solution;
      1. Asset, rather than deficit-based approach: building on the positive aspects of young people; what they are good at and what they can achieve and use positive, inspiring language;
      2. These and many other design characteristics are needed to help shape both policy and market-led solutions to major social problems such as these – something we at the RSA are always trying to do.

        We would welcome any and all offers of support, as well as entries to the challenge itself, so if you’re keen to get stuck in, look out for the launch next week.  With any luck, we can start giving ourselves more reasons to be cheerful. And I won’t have to read about ping-pong.


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