Why A Missing Link For Economic Mobility Could Be Young People’s Optimism

It’s long been believed that young people tend to suffer most from any recession as the impact is felt hardest by those who are at the start of their careers. For instance, previous research has found that the unemployment rate for 21 to 25-year-olds is double that of 25 to 54-year-olds during a recession.

Redundancies during this early stage in our careers are especially damaging because it’s the time when we see the biggest growth in our income. This has been particularly so during the Covid pandemic that has imposed particular challenges on the mental wellbeing of young people.

“We noticed post-pandemic a real need to support young people with their mental health and wellbeing,” Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, told me at the recent National Youth Summit. “There’s a really great issue in terms of the growing complexity of the world that has made it harder than ever to be young, and young people are really struggling with the wave of shocks that are hitting us.”

Lack of optimism

Burnham went on to explain that in surveys conducted in the region of 14 to 15-year-olds, there is clear anxiety about the future and an underlying pessimism about what prospects are in store for them.

Research from the University of Basel suggests underlines the importance of aspirations to the career of any young person. Indeed, in a form of the Pygmalion effectthe study found that higher aspirations consistently lead to higher achievements.

This belief is important, but recent research from New York University underlined some of the concerns young people are having. The data shows that the sons and daughters of high-status parents have many more advantages in the labor market than previous work believed.

For instance, roughly 50% of children of workers in top-tier occupations now work in occupations of similar stature. Alternatively, half of the children of parents in the bottom tier work also work in occupations of similar stature.

Moving on up

The Basel researchers looked at over 17,000 people from across the UK, all of whom were born in the same week back in 1958. The dataset has been collected throughout their lives, and indeed continues to this day. The data includes information on the childhood environment of each participant, including their aspirations as a youngster, and the career and financial progress they made through their adult life.

The results show that while cognitive skills were also important, the most important determining of success in both one’s education and career was the aspirations held as a youngster. Indeed, the researchers believe that a lack of ambition when young is a key factor in the lack of social mobility we’re seeing today.

“This cannot be explained solely by the differences in family income or in participants’ abilities. It is more the case that inequality seems to begin early on, with their very aspirations,” the researchers explain.

Raising opportunities

Suffice to say, this isn’t to say that social inequality would vanish if young people had higher aspirations. For instance, a recent study from Boston College highlights how rising economic inequality makes social mobility even harder. The study reveals that rising economic inequality makes upward mobility feel practically impossible for disadvantaged youths, which in turn results in lower motivation and less productive behaviors.

A study from Iowa State University advocates education as an obvious first step, with the research revealing a direct connection between expenditure on public education and returns on that investment ranging from lower drop-out rates, higher taxes, and general increases in upward mobility.

Education on its own is not enough, however, and a recent study from the University of Bath explored the impact work experience, and in particular year-long placements, can have on social mobility. The research found that such placements can be hugely influential, especially in securing entry into high-level professional services firms, where social mobility has been most resistant to change in recent years.

What young people want

This was underlined by research presented at the National Youth Summit from Co-operatives UK, which found that 66% of young people thought there were insufficient good jobs for young people. This desire for “good jobs” was underlined by a recent study from the University of Newcastle, which examined the work values ​​of people aged between 18-35 in eleven different countries around Europe.

The analysis revealed that the quality of work people currently enjoyed, together with any previous periods of unemployment, had an impact on their overall motivation on the job.

“Experiences of unemployment or low-quality work early in their career can directly influence the work values ​​of a person and have a long-term impact on motivation and their attitudes towards pay and other benefits. Where young people feel there is a mismatch between the job they’re doing and their skills and experience, they are more motivated by aspects such as pay and job security,” the researchers explain.

The co-operative group model is aiming to overcome this by providing young people with higher quality work than is perhaps available elsewhere. For instance, the Wings platform operates in London and aims to provide an ethical alternative to the various food delivery apps in existence today. This includes giving delivery riders fairer pay and conditions.

“It’s important to get that wider message out there that there is hope and there are good jobs available to people,” Rose Marley, Co-operatives UK CEO told me at the National Youth Summit.

A recent report from the UN’s International Labor Organization highlights the multi-faceted approach needed to tackle youth unemployment. Given the inherent difficulties in getting such coordinated responses, perhaps raising aspirations might be a more accessible place to start.


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