Graduate unemployment: Where do we go from here?

Graduate unemployment is becoming a huge social problem. It no longer just affects recent graduates but will also affect those who are currently in higher education and those considering entering higher education. The phenomenon of graduate unemployment challenges the mainstream view that sacrificing your time, hard work and energy by continuing with education will help you to get a good job in the future. The fact that individuals with high qualifications are unemployed causes concern. The first thought that comes to a person’s mind when thinking about going into higher education is that, whatever happens, your future should be prosperous, shouldn’t it?

I conducted interviews with three graduates to gain an insight into their experiences of unemployment. They all graduated with good degree classifications at reputable universities. It seems strange to think that graduates like them have been unemployed for between 1 and 2 years. The graduates all shared their feelings of frustration and argued that they feel trapped and that there is no way for them to move forward. One of them stated that ‘it’s a dead end’. They all had high expectations and assumed that they would get a job after graduating, but as this did not happen their frustrations grew as they had sacrificed so much to go to university. One interviewee stated that after everything you have done ‘what do you get return? Nothing.’ It seemed that they were still getting over the fact that they are still searching for a job.

Apart from a few temporary part-time jobs in retail, the graduates did not have any other work experience. They found these jobs to be degrading and were not satisfied with them. They try extremely hard to find suitable jobs and as they have no other form of income many of them sign on at the jobcentre. They find this quite off-putting as one interviewee describes the atmosphere being quite ‘different’ and ‘intimidating’. They found the jobcentre to be a waste of time as they were often told to apply for jobs for which they are overqualified and which were not in the area that they wanted to find work. The graduates realised that being unemployed has a stigma attached to it. They claimed that the jobcentre, agencies, the media and politicians present graduates as being lazy and as choosing to be unemployed. This can shape the way that others see them. But should graduates be blamed for being unemployed when there are not enough jobs, let alone decent ones?

The graduates believed that they are in this position because of the economic mess the country is in. Due to the fact that we are now experiencing a double dip recession things are bound to get worse. Recession refers to negative economic growth, it brings with it many consequences; among them are higher unemployment rates, an increase in debt and many individuals with lower living standards as a result. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the recession has certainly affected recent graduates. Their 2012 report revealed that ‘Around one new graduate in every five available to work is unemployed’ (2012, p. 4). So the graduates that were interviewed were in fact right. The finding from the report seems quite ironic, as everyone is familiar with the statement that David Cameron made when the Coalition came to power in 2010 when unemployment figures were over 2.5 million; he boasted about how under the government’s new policies unemployment rates were predicted to fall, pledging that ‘At the end of this Parliament unemployment will be falling.’

But what are the unemployment figures now? According to an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, released on 17 April 2013, ‘Overall there were 2.56 million people who were looking and available to work but unable to find a job’ (p. 1). (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/april-2013/sty-uk-unemployment-rises.html)

So what exactly is the government doing to solve the problem of unemployment? One way that they tend to ‘reduce’ the number of unemployed is simply by encouraging individuals to join work schemes and by sanctioning benefits. Neither are actually helping. Work schemes are temporary and sanctioning benefits is actually making matters worse. Indeed they may temporarily hide the real figures of those who are unemployed – but how long can this charade go on for?

Some graduates who experience unemployment are encouraged to take on jobs that they are overqualified for, as this is seen as a better option than claiming benefits. An example of this is when the graduate Cait Reilly was forced to work in Poundland for free; if she had refused to do this then her benefits would be stopped. This is a distressing thought for graduates who are unemployed and I must say for me too. You make so many commitments thinking it will pay off but what really happens? There is nothing there for you. Not only are you left in a position where there is little chance to progress but you have a whole load of debt to pay off and to top it off people see you as being a burden to the state.

Unemployed graduates are almost stranded on their own separate overflowing mountain of debt that just keeps on rising with interest. There is no one that they can turn to for help as their situation is seen as their problem so they have to deal with it. No wonder the graduates said they feel as though they are stuck. If unemployment is a social problem, the solution for this cannot be in just expecting the individuals affected to change. Graduates who are unemployed are seen as failing to take responsibility for themselves. This can lead to them being stigmatised. For a social problem like unemployment to be solved a thorough social solution is necessary.

Although politicians claim to have ways to ‘reduce’ unemployment it is obvious that not much is being done at all. There is no attention placed on graduate unemployment as such; instead all the unemployed are lumped together and seen as one huge problem. One interviewee stated that graduates are not seen [as] graduates- we are all put in the same category’. It is strange how whenever the topic of unemployment comes up the blame tends to fall on those who are unemployed. They are all always seen as ‘lazy’, or ‘workshy’ or ‘scroungers’ who are happy to live off the taxpayer.

So why should all the blame be shifted on to the unemployed? Why should others be allowed to see them in a negative light? Given that the country is going through a double dip recession it is obvious that the unemployment rates will go up. It is something that graduates have little control over. They and any other individual who is unemployed are always seen as having put themselves in this position. One of the interviewees stated that it is ‘easier for the government to blame those who are unemployed’, than to admit that they are the ones who are responsible. I believe that this is a valid point and totally agree with her. The government do tend to use individuals who are unemployed as a scapegoat so that others will believe that they are at fault. Doing this distracts people from the real reasons for this social problem.

I asked the graduates if they thought the government was doing enough to solve graduate unemployment; they acknowledged that there are graduate schemes and internships but said that other than these, not much is being done. But the question that seems to bother me the most is what do you think can be done to solve graduate unemployment?

The interviewees thought that if graduates were to make a stand by organising a petition or a peaceful protest this would encourage others to question what is going on. But they were worried that these efforts would have little impact, as they would not be acted upon. In a sense, it may be true that a peaceful protest may not bring about a radical change but the first few steps are always the most difficult. We always tend to forget that we live in a hierarchical society, where those who have the most power and influence are the ones who are most free. Are we becoming a bit like puppets that cannot function without our puppeteers? Surely we are not puppets but people with desires and ambitions of our own; if we are able to think and act according to our own reason, then why allow others to restrict us and impose their ways onto us?

Those who experience inequalities are conscious of the spitefulness that our society exhibits. But, strangely, they still tend to accept this system knowing it only benefits some individuals. We prefer to think that sooner or later everything will fall into place… Are we all waiting for something miraculous to happen so that our problems are solved and we can all live happily ever after? While this seems nice as a thought, the reality is that unless we do something, nothing is going to happen by itself. Why are we becoming passive creatures that put our lives in the hands of others and let them decide what we should and should not do? Why should we put our trust in a system that rarely benefits us and is ready to pass the blame onto us without an ounce of pity? Surely we have not always been so passive and obedient?

Individuals need to realise that there are far too many of us who are affected by social problems and who experience inequalities, but what seems to never change is the blaming of those individuals/groups. We need to take into account that the rise of tuition fees, loss of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), welfare cuts and other cuts in the public sector all share one factor; the most vulnerable are the ones who are most affected. This may not be a coincidence.
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