Today’s figures show that there are 1.04 million 18-24 year-olds who are unemployed - more than one-in-five of those in the workforce. Even if we leave aside the waste and unhappiness this is causing - and we damned well shouldn’t - this has long-term effects.
One of these is that an early spell of joblessness has long-lasting effects upon one’s future earnings and employability. One survey says:
Unemployment while young, especially of long duration, causes permanent scars rather than temporary blemishes. For the young a spell of unemployment does not end with that spell; it raises the probability of being unemployed in later years and has a wage penalty.
For example, one study (pdf) found that men who had been unemployed for more than six months before the age of 23 earned an average of 7% less than others even at the age of 42; this controls for educational qualifications.
But there’s something else. Experiences in our formative years shape our attitudes to risk. Ulrike Malmendier says (pdf):
Economic events experienced over the course of one’s life have a more significant impact on individuals’ risk taking than historical facts learned from summary information in books and other sources.
So, for example, people who had seen bad equity returns in their youth own fewer equities than others even decades later.
This rings true for me personally; I am very risk-averse, I suspect in part because my early adult years were times of mass and rising unemployment. Among my (limited) circle, people of my age are less likely to gamble than those older or younger than me.
If this is right, today’s youth unemployment could reduce risk-taking for years. It means we’ll have fewer shareholders and entrepreneurs than we otherwise would even in many years’ time.
If that sounds bad, there might be a silver lining here.
It could that one pleasant legacy of the 1930s depression was a favourable unemployment-inflation trade-off in the 1950s and early 60s. This was because workers who remembered the depression were scared of unemployment and so did not press for large wage gains even though they were in a strong labour market. The upshot was that inflation stayed low. However, as workers who remembered the 30s retired and were replaced by workers who had known only full employment, risk aversion and the fear of unemployment receded and so wage militancy rose.
It might be, therefore, that in 20 or so years time, we’ll enjoy low inflation if we get an economic boom because today’s joblessness might permanently reduce wage militancy (or an inclination to get into debt).
This, I suspect, is the best that can be said in favour of present economic policy.