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Hope and Hard Times

Wednesday 18th December 2013

This is the third in a series of four Advent essays to be published in the Yorkshire Post which will culminate with a Christmas message on December 24:

It’s a sobering thought that austerity measures will be around until at least 2020.  What does that say to young people at the start of their working lives? For the nine million people in the UK who live below the breadline, the festivities of the next few weeks will be a test of survival rather than a season of celebration. Times are hard. Whilst reports of an economic recovery are welcome, unemployment remains a massive issue, especially amongst the young.

Indeed, the Government’s plans for further public sector cuts in 2015 means the ghost of Christmas future looms large for many. Eight government departments including the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, HM Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Northern Ireland Office are all to make cuts of between 8% and 10% in 2015-16. This is going to hurt.

Successive governments have moved public sector jobs to more depressed regions, not exclusively in the North, but the knock-on effect of these cuts in the region is not to be underestimated.  Statistics from Adzuna, an online job search engine, show that six of the ten hardest cities to find employment in are in the North. Bradford, Hull, Sunderland and Middlesbrough are all listed. In Hull there are 21 jobseekers for every vacancy, compared to 1.27 in London.  9 of the 10 best ten cities to find a job in are in the South.  The North-South divide continues to grow, creating an ever wider poverty and employment gap.

Real Life Reform, a study into the effects of welfare cuts on social housing tenants in the North, found that 24% of those actively searching for work had applied for 40 or more jobs in the last three months.  Despite making great efforts to find work, 70% were not making it to interview stage. Contrary to public perception, many didn’t want to remain on benefits. Stories of claimants living in mansions have made headline news, distorting our perception of life for the majority of those who are out of work. For most, unemployment is not a lifestyle choice but a daily battle as they run the gauntlet of applications, job interviews and the disappointment of constant rejection. Unemployment strikes at the heart of what it is to be human.

For me as a Christian, work is one of those things which marks out our dignity as human beings. It is a fulfilment of our God given vocation and purpose as in it we share responsibility for the material world. Work is also our primary form of communication with other human beings, shaping how we relate to others, and satisfying our essential social nature. And what is the point of a holiday (literally a ‘holy day’) if work is not the norm? Rest, reflection, gratitude - yes, and worship – together with work these are essential to what it means to be made in God’s image, as co-workers and stewards of creation.

Take work away, and life is not only tough, its meaning is challenged, and we are severely diminished as human beings.

This is all the more stark when we consider the impact on the next generation. The unemployment rate among young people aged 16 to 24 has reached 21% - almost 1 million young people are out work. Many are university graduates who are highly educated yet find a dearth of opportunity. Meanwhile those with few or no qualifications are highly disadvantaged in such a competitive job market.

Amongst the conclusions of a recent IPPR study on Youth Unemployment in Europe is the recommendation there should be more opportunities, where appropriate, to combine education with work. This adds value to both, and instils a sense of worth and purpose.  This proposal deserves serious consideration.

In 2008, I set up a Youth Trust with the purpose of empowering young people to engage with their communities and to be the answer to the challenges we face in society today. The vision of the Trust is to help them ‘be the change they want to see’ by working with each other to making a difference. Over the last 18 months, over 15,000 school children in 145 schools have taken part in our Young Leaders Award, designed to bring on their potential, equip them with vital leadership skills and encourage them to become a force for good in their local communities. We need to be imaginative in finding ways of reaching and engaging young people to restore their vision for life because they are the energy of our nation – and they have the power to make a difference.

One of the carols I love is: ‘O come, O come Emmanuel.’ Emmanuel is the name for Jesus which means ‘God with us.’ Not only is God with us, God makes us his ‘co-workers’ – and that gives even greater meaning to what we do. My prayer is that despite the unpromising circumstances of the current economic climate, today’s young jobseekers will indeed find meaningful employment which values their contribution, and encourages them to be the best that they can be.

After all, Jesus’ beginnings did not look promising. But let us be people who see potential where others see problems. Let us be people of hope.  Let us be people who concentrate on what works instead of wasting our time on what does not work.



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