Fi Glover is keen to let it be known that she is aware of how fortunate she has been. She’s talking about the relative ease with which she entered the competitive world of journalism when she says, “ The constant thing I think is how lucky I’ve been to get on that last bit of the wave,”
That wave is the generations who could rely on a good education, a willing attitude and hard work being enough to secure them employment. Which is one of the central messages that comes out of the latest programme in the Generations Apart series, as it looks at the differences in job prospects for young people over the past 60 years.
Two of the people interviewed for the programme talked about their differing experiences of breaking into journalism. David started working as a trainee for The Guardian in the 1960s, straight out of university, when he admits he didn’t have a clue what he was doing.
In contrast, Abi an undergraduate studying journalism, reckons that she would need at least ten unpaid work placements under her belt before any employer would consider taking her on. She talks of some of her peers who have done 30 pieces of work experience in their efforts to find a job.
Glover explains that her experience was more akin to that of David than to the hard struggle facing today’s graduates. “I had to have work experience before I got on the BBC training scheme but I only had to have a year’s experience and I could just about stretch the money to do a year after university under the minimum wage. Once I got a place on the BBC trainee scheme I became more and more like David – the jobs were there and as long as you kept working hard, the jobs were available.”
So it’s in the full knowledge of her own luck that Glover views the increasingly tough job market for graduates. “It’s just eye-opening and I do think for my kids, constantly, when making the programmes – and the thing I think is, ‘oh shit!.’”
“It’s hard to see how that will ever change, because once you raise the bar that high as an employer [by expecting job candidates to have so much experience] why would you ever bring it back down again. You’ve got your absolute pick of graduates, because there are so many.”
And for anyone who’s ever wondered about the merits of doing a PhD in Star Wars, there is a hint that perhaps there are now too many graduates. “Our sociologist [Professor Rachel Johnson of Sussex University] makes that fantastic point about how we may have got the expansion of higher education a little bit wrong in terms of creating this enormous number of very skilled workers at the top end of the scale just at the time when industries have dispensed with the need for unskilled workers. So you have this very top-heavy employment experience bank, with all these people with degrees – but where are all the jobs for people with degrees?”
It’s not just the graduate experience that the programme looks at. It also highlights how unskilled young people in the 1960s could expect to walk into a job with relative ease and stay in work for the rest of their lives. Which is certainly not the case today – a contrast that struck home with Glover: “The hope and optimism that those 18 year olds could have had way back in the end of the 1950s and the 1960s is very different to now. Because if you’re unskilled and out of work now, the prognosis is really bleak. I mean really, really, really bleak. You can face this lifetime of unemployment.”
Another section of the cluttered job market examined in the programme is that of the working woman. And while some things may have improved, Glover does not see the working mother’s lot as being that rosy. “It’s always been difficult for mums going back to work and it’s interesting that we’re still talking about mums going back to work. That equal playing field where it’s divided childcare and there isn’t an expectation that it will be the woman that does the childcare hasn’t moved on that much.”
“The statistics show that women are penalised in the workplace for having had children: they either have to go back to a job below the one they were doing before they had children or, in order to make it work in terms of childcare, their hours are compromised and their career prospects are compromised.”
Even though there may not be equality in the workplace, Glover finds cause for optimism in the attitudes of the young women interviewed in the series. “I did think that it was quite heartening that the young girls in the series had an attitude to work and family that is much more optimistic than I thought it would be given the statistics.”
She describes the experience of Hayley, who had children at the age of 16 and 18, but who has managed to do a degree while staying at home during the early years of childcare. “She’s incredibly positive about what the future might hold for her. She has this incredible zeal and a very positive ambition, which I was surprised about.”
While the opportunities for women in the workplace may not have moved on much from those available to Glover’s generation, she sees one major advantage that young women have now. “They are a lot more aware and realistic about the world they’re living than I think I was at the same age, and I think that’s because the pitfalls of combining a family and a career are much more apparent now.”
That comes with a frank admission of the overreaching ambition of her own generation. “They’re not thinking that they can have it all. Which is very wise. The message that my generation was sent, or chose to take on board, was that you really could do it all, and a lot of women have found that’s not the case.”
Generations Apart is on at 9:00am on Radio 4