As an employer I should be pleased. The nation’s smartest young people are desperately competing to work for free. And top Oxbridge graduates will bite your hand off to do piece-work for less than £50 a day – even on spec. They need a bit of money, not much pride, and something to put on their hundredth CV. If only my company were to renounce its fully-paid internship programme, we could be making hay right now abusing these poor 22-year-old victims of bad timing.

It’s so sad. As a parent, you constantly push your darlings to jump through all those hoops to get into a good school, to get into a good university, to get into a good career. Our kids have been building up to this moment, readying for their dream jobs. It’s been all about climbing the ladder. But now they reach the climax of that 17-year ascent and find there’s nothing for them at the top. My daughter is lucky; she’s still studying for her masters in physics. Maybe next year will be better. But none of her friends who finished last June have got real jobs. And when employers start looking again, they will be going first to the newest batch of hopefuls. Today's cohort will have been disadvantaged for life.

My sixteen-year-old told me about a classmate who got a summer job and decided not to give it up: she’s not returning to school. My daughter was shocked by that, after all the girl was doing fine at school, but it's a rational calculation: will five more years of education, costing at least £27,000 pounds, actually pay off for most kids? There’s a reasonable probability she’ll be better off with five years of extra earning and developing experience.

Of course it’s mainly because of the recession. But that’s not the whole story. Even if the economy had been steady, we would still have faced a decline in jobs appropriate to the lengthening period of education. We have been constantly increasing the proportion of students who go to university, widening the range of courses which we pretend will lead to professional careers. But there’s a flaw: only if productivity increases in line with expanding education can our children’s rising expectations be satisfied.

But productivity hasn’t increased. As Ed Balls had the grace to admit yesterday on the Today Programme, the huge increase in public spending driven by the previous government did not yield sufficient dividends. Those who argued that we were wasting resources were derided and told it was vacuous to demand better value for money. It was always about aspiration, never about accounting. But Kipling’s ‘Gods of the of the Copybook Headings’ do return.

Kipling was wrong, though, about the ‘smooth-tongued wizards’ – they don’t withdraw. Productivity is hardly ever discussed. The latest figures from the ONS show that it rose significantly in France, Germany and the US between 2009 and 2010, but remained stagnant in Britain. Productivity is 23% higher in America than in the UK. This extraordinary gap is not at the head of the political debate. The discussion is all about the deficit, and jobs. But it’s so easy to say we want the deficit reduced and new jobs created. What makes it happen? The real issue, the driver of our economic reality, is productivity.

There’s something dreadfully dull about discussing productivity, and efficiency, and employment practices, and procurement, and the re-engineering our public services and the reform of the civil service to deliver more value-for-money. We prefer our politics to be rather grander. But big-picture posturing is exactly how you take the shine off a million bright young things.

19 comments for: Stephan Shakespeare: Our society can’t move forward if we don’t become more productive

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