I represent one of the country’s youngest constituencies with over a fifth of residents under 16. So, of course, I work with and campaign for children and young people.
But I worry too about the long term impact of the forgotten generation. In my borough these are mainly British born men (and some women) in their late 40s or 50s, in Hackney mostly white or Caribbean. They left school at 16 (or earlier) with few qualifications, they have worked and learnt their skills on the job.
In 1985 48 per cent of 16 year olds were in full time education. By 1990, although numbers of 16 year olds had dropped because of population changes, 60 per cent of 16 year olds were in full time education. Today all current secondary school starters will work or study until at least 18.
So the world has changed. A greater emphasis on skills, international migration, house price increases and less council housing have hit this group particularly hard.
Many of these people have skills but not qualifications. In the days when employers have to check identity and immigration status many do not have a passport or driving licence.
One local man I know has two sons in their 40s still living with him in their council home. Neither had a passport, a driving licence or even a bill in their name. They don’t have many formal qualifications, and although one now has a job (and a passport) he does not earn enough to rent or buy (even outside London this would be a challenge) and as a single man will never qualify for social housing.
Major supermarkets can have 900 applicants for a single vacancy. Competition for entry level and low skilled jobs is intense and most employers will quickly screen out someone who cannot provide basic identity information.
There are a few good news stories. I met Jim (not his real name) who is 56 and still lived in the same council home he grew up in. He secured a job and training during the Olympics and now has qualifications.
He was unemployed and hit by the bedroom tax but confident that he was ahead of the pack now. But his story is the exception – and he may still be seeking work. Many of his generation have simply been left behind with qualified younger workers beating them to jobs.
For some there is a serious lack of basic skills, but where once native wit and learning by doing covered up illiteracy it is harder to survive in now.
The mainstream political parties do not speak for these forgotten men and too often they turn to support other parties from the BNP to UKIP or mostly just don’t see the point in voting.
We are emasculating a generation of men who are invisible to many in authority and for whom jobs and opportunities are drying up. And by 2052 over 65s will be a quarter of the population (in 1971 this age group accounted for only 2.3 per cent) and so we are seeing the growth of a cohort of very poor older men with fewer workers to support them.
And we also are storing up problems as many of these men are separated fathers but are forced to live in homes unsuitable for sharing with their children because they simply can’t afford what they need on minimum wage.
There is much rhetoric – my own leader has ably led the charge on the cost of living crisis – but the Westminster politician focuses on hard working families or (rightly) on children.
There are policies such as shadow work and pension’s secretary Rachel Reeves’ proposal for literacy and numeracy testing of unemployment claimants. But even if those effected tune into these promises, can we blame them for not believing change will happen fast enough, if at all?
The solutions are not easy.
We can’t get away from the need for a stable home. So we need a housebuilding programme and an affordable rent regime that is genuinely affordable – this means that one person in a minimum wage job can afford the rent. This will end the lottery of housing allocations – in reality a brutal rationing process.
We need a series of concrete policies on the cost of living – lamenting the divide between prices, housing costs and income is not enough. Quite rightly voters want to know what we are actually going to do. Former Conservative head of the No10 Policy Unit Paul Kirby has called for a £10 an hour minimum wage.
We need to focus on skills across all age ranges – but also recognise that there will still be low skilled jobs that need to be carried out and ensure that people can afford to live on their wages, which is where Kirby is coming from.
In Hackney many people are very poor. Homes with little furniture, a bus journey an unaffordable luxury, children not getting a square meal during the 6 week summer holidays. This, shockingly, is the reality of life for many in 21st century inner London. And many of these households have one or both parents working.
Focus on children is only right (47 per cent of Hackney’s children live in poverty) but concern about the next generation and the young unemployed must not lead us to sleepwalk into the problems society faces if we emasculate a group of men who are invisible and feel ignored. These men too need to be a focus of attention.