Converting a Problem into an Opportunity

The news for the last year has been dominated by the slow down in the economy and the Government’s attempts to rectify the situation. The consequences for many people have been catastrophic; some people will sadly not work again.

Impact on Individuals

I thankfully have been very lucky and have only been unemployed for a short time when I was in my early twenties and when I was single. How I would cope today if I was made redundant I do not know. I can only imagine the anger and hurt I would feel. Being unemployed is not just an economic issue, it affects us emotionally and psychologically, inflicting scars that may never heal. A job gives us a wage, status, a structure to our lives and if we are lucky interesting work that gives us a sense of fulfilment. Work can, in part, define our lives by giving us economic security as well as psychological and emotional wellbeing.

The recession is not merely an economic downturn or a period of readjustment; it is a time when people’s lives are dramatically affected and even those lucky enough to remain in work feel vulnerable. Some people have argued that what appears to differentiate this current recession from previous ones is that it is affecting people from all sections of the community. Although the latter point may in part be correct, the effect on those already struggling will be greater, with those living in deprived communities hardest hit.

If we move away from a macro-level analysis and concentrate more specifically on the family, we can see that the immediate effects of the recession will be on adults of working age. However, this ignores the knock-on effects on young people. Children and young people will also suffer because of family income reduction, which may also lead to anxiety and other psychological problems, as well as potential isolation which could affect children and young people socially.

Give Education Priority

I write this article only a few days before the budget and like many I wonder what the Government is going to do and what taxes are likely to rise. A commentator recently argued that one of the most vulnerable groups in times of a recession is the young because this recession could potentially change their future. He uses evidence presented by David Blanchflower from the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee to argue that the Government should invest £90 billion in keeping young people in education rather than allowing them to swell the ranks of the unemployed.

What, in my view, is important about the above suggestion is that it begins to change the agenda away from seeing everything as a cost and sees it as an investment in our future; it changes the recession from being a wholly negative to being an opportunity to change and develop. This investment provides the United Kingdom with an opportunity to address the poor record the country has in skills and vocational training. It could also improve numeracy and literacy rates which “…could be turned round with targeted public spending.”[i] If this stimulus package were to be introduced, the actual net cost, it is argued, would be much less.


In a recent article in the Guardian, Mark Johnson, a rehabilitated offender, former drug user and founder of the charity User Voice, talks about how politicians – and many adults – do not listen to young people, and, as I have argued in previous articles, young people are too often dismissed and labelled, which in turn can develop into a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity. He goes onto say that the Government should, instead of handing down policies from on high, implement policies from the bottom up.

Mark Johnson acknowledges that it “… takes a lot of courage and a willingness to accept that the uneducated, the sick, the criminal and the young have a fundamental contribution to make to their own welfare”.[ii] He persuasively, in my view, points out that if Governments are to invest in preventative services for the young people early in their lives the savings on imprisonment etc. would be dramatic, and suggests that if those interventions had been in place in his life it would have saved the exchequer £2 million.

Both the above suggestions make me think that the Government’s obsession with controls and targets so often misses the point and allows too many of young people to rot in a walled pool of mediocrity. For many people there is one spark that can change a life around. In my work I am privileged to work with many students whose lives have been turned around through their own tenacity and determination.

The Spark to Fire up Change

I was also reminded of this a few months ago when I met a very interesting man: a consultant who talked of his past life and the reality of living a life where there is no hope, no sense of a future and how his break came when he plucked up the courage to go to college, followed by university. He is now working very creatively in communities using art and culture to address problems and issues. What I have never asked my friend was what was the ‘spark’ that gave him the courage to cross the threshold and enter the college.

Igniting the spark is a much cheaper, more creative way of working with young people than trying to smother the fire of discontent.

[i] Seager, A., (2009) ‘We need a more educated approach to save young people from the dole queue’ Guardian 13/4/2009 (accessed 16/4/2009)[ii] Johnson, M., (2009) ‘Teenagers need the power to step off the trouble train’ Guardian 15/4/2009 (accessed 16/4/2009)

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