Unemployment rates have been falling for six years in the UK, and the total number of unemployed young people between 18 and 24 has fallen from over one million in 2011 to under 500,000 by 2018.
What's more, fewer than 150,000 young people now claim employment-related benefits such as Jobseekers Allowance or Universal Credit. More than 80% of this group will move off benefits within six months, and more than 90% will do so within a year.
But moving off benefits may not mean moving into work. According to our estimates, while unemployment rates among benefits claimants have fallen, the rate of young people who are eligible for unemployment benefits has risen steadily.
This means that a growing number of young people are not receiving any official help from government, even though they are not earning enough to live on. This could be for a variety of reasons: they might be suffering from ill health, being supported by parents or friends, or working in the informal economy.
This group has doubled in size over the last six years, but we have very little comprehensive data on who they are and what they are doing. This is concerning, because periods of unemployment at a young age are associated with lifelong scarring effects, including reduced earnings and negative impacts on physical and mental health.
Hidden from statistics
Many young people who aren't claiming benefits might find work relatively quickly. But for others, who face greater barriers to employment, the period might be longer. Welfare reforms have introduced more stringent conditions that people must meet to receive benefits, as well as sanctions if those conditions are not followed. These changes have significantly increased the number of people who don't claim benefits at all.
With colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University, Cambridge Economic Associates and the universities of Warwick and Birmingham, I have been leading the evaluation of the Big Lottery Fund's £108m Talent Match programme. The five-year programme launched in 2013 to support this group of young unemployed people, who are often hidden from the official statistics.
Two things set the programme apart from other employment programmes. First, it was led by local voluntary and community sector organisations working across 21 Local Enterprise Partnership areas in England. And more significantly, young people themselves helped to design and deliver it.
Voluntary and community sector organisations engaged young people in partnership groups and provided training and development support to young people to act as peer mentors. Above all, they took a youth-centred and asset-based approach focused on the needs and aspirations of the young person.
Support to succeed
Since 2014, the programme has supported over 25,000 young people. A quarter of young people joining the programme reported having experienced mental ill health, around 16% had experienced homelessness, and 12% had a conviction for a criminal offence.
The support provided was wide-ranging and varied according to the needs and aspirations of young people. Nearly all received one-to-one support, while more targeted support included help with career planning, personal development, counselling and financial support.
In terms of the headline outcomes of the programme, 41% of participants achieved a job outcome, and 18% a job outcome lasting at least six months. Nearly half (46%) did a work placement or took up an opportunity to volunteer.
Perhaps most significantly, over three-quarters (78%) of Talent Match participants who initially recorded a low well-being score (for example, in terms of life satisfaction) went on to record a higher score at a later stage.
Statistics are important, but for the moment they provide an incomplete estimate of the level of youth employment. Our research shows that we need to think about tackling youth unemployment in new ways.
This means starting with the involvement of young people in the design and delivery of programmes, and understanding that the journey to employment is rarely straightforward – it can involve setbacks as well as progress.
It's time to start thinking about youth unemployment support as a partnership between the public, private and voluntary sectors, while recognising that the well-being of the individual is as important as the job itself.
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This article originally appeared on The Conversation.