“458,000 fewer young people out of work since 2010”

That’s the claim from the Conservatives this week, along with the hashtag “Unleashing Britain’s potential”. It’s been “liked” and shared thousands of times on social media.

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show that the total number of unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds is indeed lower than it was when the Conservatives took office in April 2010 — by exactly the amount the Conservatives claim.

But there’s some important context we should bear in mind.

Let’s take a look.

The source

You’re officially “unemployed” if you don’t have a job but have been actively seeking work in the last four weeks. That doesn’t include people who are out of work and not looking for it (they are in a separate group, called “economically inactive”).

We understand the Conservatives’ claim is based on the number of unemployed people aged 16 to 24.

When we compare ONS stats from the three months ending in April 2010 with the latest figures (October to December 2019), we can see the number of unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds fell by about 120,000.

Combine that with a 338,000 drop in the number of unemployed 18 to 24-year-olds, and we can see how the Conservatives reached their 458,000 figure.

Other factors at play?

Hearing the Conservatives’ claim, you might think that the fall in youth unemployment means there are more young people in jobs — perhaps a result of the party’s economic management for the last ten years.

But there are some caveats to this figure.

For one thing, there are 408,000 fewer people aged 16 to 24 in the UK today than there were in 2010. That’s mainly because fertility rates fell during the 1990s and reached a record low in the early 2000s (at the time when today’s young adults would have been born).

So it’s not especially surprising that the number of young people doing anything should have dropped by a few hundred thousand since 2010 — it may simply be an effect of demographics.

And we should also bear in mind that the Conservatives have combined data on two age groups to reach their claim about youth unemployment: 16 and 17-year-olds, and 18 to 24-year-olds.

This is significant because the employment prospects of the younger group have changed considerably since 2010, for reasons other than economics.

The school leaving age rose twice in the period we’re looking at — from 16 to 17 in 2013, and again to 18 from 2015. (It was a hangover from legislation brought in by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in 2009.)

So not only are there fewer unemployed 16 and 17 year olds today, there are also fewer employed teens of that age. That’s true both in terms of absolute numbers (down 42,000 since 2010), and as a proportion of the age group (down 0.5 percentage points).

At the same time, the proportion of economically inactive 16 and 17-year-olds (i.e. not in work and not looking for work) has increased — from 61.5 per cent of the age group to 69.2 per cent.

That category is generally where we find students who are not seeking part-time or supplementary income alongside their studies.

In short, the demand for jobs among 16 and 17-year-olds is lower now than it was in 2010 — and so again, it’s hardly surprising that the number of unemployed people of this age has fallen.

Is there a more reliable measure?

Despite these caveats, it remains true that the economy — including the jobs market — is in a better state today than it was in 2010.

The overall employment rate is at a record high and the rate of unemployment has been falling for the last six years, according to ONS figures. (Though it’s taken nearly 12 years for real wages to return to the level they were at before the financial crisis).

So is there a better way to track changes in youth unemployment over the Conservatives’ time in office?

Perhaps the simplest approach is to stick to the 18 to 24 age group — thereby avoiding the confounding variables caused by changing the school leaving age — and to use proportions rather than absolute numbers to reduce the confusion caused by the low birth rate in the early 2000s.

When we look at it this way, ONS figures show that the rate of unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds fell from 17.8 per cent in 2010 to 10 per cent at the end of 2019.

At the same time, the employment rate in this age group rose from 58 per cent to 63 per cent.