Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí is an Irish proverb which translates to English as praise youth and it will flourish. This week's youth unemployment statistics in Northern Ireland show youth being damned, not praised, more likely to wither than to flourish. The unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year olds is 20.4%.
Behind every number is a young person. And a condemnation of the stewardship of the world offered by the generations ahead of that young person. Unemployment, youth and adult, is long endemic in Northern Ireland, despite many initiatives, fan-fared loudly in the media, often involving inward investors who's commitment to local well-being is as shallow as the pot of state funding they can access. And this week's statistics bring the reality of a life on the dole for young people into sharp focus.
The local radio interviews a young man, now 24, who had lived in a derelict railway museum and a young woman, aged 19, on a one-year media skills training course. Both live in a youth accommodation foyer, a scheme for young people aged 16-25 in housing need who are prepared to commit themselves to training and employment. They are intelligent and avid for work, yet can find nothing in their home town, a small city on the north-west of Ireland. Why?
Ironies abound deep in the heart of the globalised economy today. Competition is vital and profit depends on low input costs, which means that industries will not come to Northern Ireland without juicy subsidies and tasty tax perks. And will only stay as long as the subsidies and perks remain. Every job is, in essence, a public sector job, even though a private company, often one that sends it's profits out of the country, enjoys access to a large pool of cheap local labour.
By any measure, this is a ludicrous way to organise economic activity. Considerable public funds go into schooling young people and, even allowing for the fact that a principle role of schooling is the management and soft-incarceration of young people, the return on this public investment is uneven, and arguably poor. Anecdotally, educationalists speak of young people with low language and social skills struggling in nursery schools and very often not catching up. Teachers believe that poverty is having a negative effect on the well-being of students. They say children living in poverty arrive at school tired, hungry and without the proper uniform or in worn-out clothes. They say that these youngsters lack confidence and suffer from higher stress levels, damaged self-esteem and social skills, poor physical or mental health and become victims of bullying. Employers speak of young adults with poor literacy, numeracy and life skills coming into the workforces.
Cui bono? The Roman orator and statesman, Cicero attributed the expression cui bono to the Roman consul Lucius Cassius, “whom the Roman people used to regard as a very honest and wise judge, in the habit of asking, time and again, 'To whose benefit?' ”
Apply the maxim of Lucius Cassius to youth unemployment - who benefits? It is certainly not young people, the economy, the public purse, future prosperity, and social cohesion.
Can we expect young people in Northern Ireland to email, text, tweet and facebook each other into revolution as their contemporaries in countries across North Africa have been doing?