We haven’t seen light at the end of the tunnel yet”: Margate’s youth find work in the pandemic

While the seaside town has undergone regeneration in the past decade, unemployment is soaring and 35% of its 16-year-olds are living in poverty. Here, we speak to the young people that call Margate home.

Navigating work as a young person in the UK has never been easy, even long before Covid-19. As with so much else, it matters where you are. That’s certainly the case in Margate, the most famous and most northerly coastal town in the district of Thanet, on the tip of Kent, in the southeast corner of the UK.

Over the last decade, the town has received much breathless coverage hailing its transformation” from faded seaside resort to a rapidly regenerating coastal destination. This was spearheaded by the £17.5 million Turner Contemporary art gallery, which opened to considerable fanfare in 2011, as well as the much-hyped 2015 reopening of Dreamland, the venerable old amusement park. The result has been a steady influx of young new residents, tempted by comparatively cheap housing costs and relative proximity to London (St Pancras and Victoria stations are only 90 mins and 1 hour 45 minsaway by train, respectively).

But big banner arts institutions and big city self-exiles aren’t even close to the whole story. Thanet has the highest rates of child poverty in Kent, with 2017 – 2018 figures showing 35 per cent of 16-year-olds and under are living in poverty. This, sadly, fits with the recent history of Britain’s seaside towns, from Margate to Morecambe and all around this island nation. It’s a familiar tale of steep and apparently irrevocable decline, of decimated domestic tourism and a world lost to the past: a Victorian invention that unravelled under the twin pressures of cheap package holidays and calculated neglect.

So, while much may have changed here from the worst days, Margate’s rejuvenation is not a simple tale of Tracey Emin-endorsed arts‘n’crafts‘n’flat whites on every recently gentrified corner. Unemployment is still above the national average, while a lack of available social housing stock and its attendant homelessness has been exacerbated by the skyrocketing housing costs that so often comes with arts-led regeneration”. Average house prices have jumped 55 per cent in the last decade. Great for the deep-pocketed incomers. Less so for hard-pressed locals.

That pesky ongoing pandemic has also served to highlight and deepen other pre-existing fault lines, just as it has done across seaside towns all over the country. Heavy reliance on tourism presents an obvious issue. Without footfall, so much of the local economy is in trouble. In the teeth of lockdown, the spring and early summer boom months turned to midwinter, almost overnight.

And it was already tough being young in Margate. In 2020, Thanet’s youth unemployment rate hit 17.4 per cent, the highest rate in the entire southeast of England. Few other places fare better poised to start telling the story of the UK’s unequal and lopsided youth jobs market.

I visited on a sweltering high summer afternoon, following an eerily quiet train journey from a deserted London St Pancras. Though the beach wasn’t packed, there was still a sizable crowd out enjoying the day. A good mix having a good time: young and old, families and their toddlers splashing about in the crisp blue water.

On the main strip, I passed a few teenage boys trying their luck in the arcades, loitering without much intent inside against the sun’s glare. Their long faces spoke a thousand words about the reality of summer holidays in a world where school has already been out for four months. Adolescent boredom must hit ultra-hard when it’s fused with lockdown ennui.

It took about 20 minutes to walk from the station to the Northdown Road space occupied by Arts Education Exchange, a youth organisation that works with some of Margate’s most disadvantaged young people. The journey there tells you more about the town’s divide than any stat book could, as the housing stock grows shabbier and the run of carefully manicured independent shops gets thinner. I was here to meet the managing director, Ollie Briggs.

The southeast London native has called Margate home since 2016, after years spent working as a secondary school art and design teacher. Of course, he says, the last few months have been a challenge, but they’ve managed to keep in touch with their cohort effectively enough. AEE works with those for whom mainstream education didn’t work, for whatever reason. Catering for clients aged 11 to 30, its mission is broad. The idea is to develop creative skills suitable to each individual: from music to photography, poetry to design, as well as the standard (and essential) maths and English qualifications.

It’s the sort of work that tries to help both job prospects and the sense of being part of a larger community in Margate, with the latter something their young people might never have really felt before. For Briggs, the headline figures about unemployment in Thanet might be attention-grabbing, but it’s equally important, he notes, not to get caught up in the big statistics sometimes and remind myself that we’re working on a really grassroots level. We [as an organisation] can’t solve unemployment.”

What it can do, however, is work backwards and understand the pathways that might lead to it.

The concept of challenging circumstances’ is a euphemism that can be applied to the lives of many of the young people that work with AEE. Briggs explains to me that down here” in Thanet, that could mean that you’re a young person living in care, which means you’re more likely to disengage with education, or be involved with the police and social services. [These are] things that impact on your education and then your employment. You might be a young migrant, again at a disadvantage in terms of accessing education and services.”

Briggs tells me this while giving a tour of the building, including its well-equipped recording studio. A big favourite with AEE’s young people, with its Macs, bright white walls and periodic bursts of colour, it could easily pass for a trendy graphic design studio rather than your typical youth organisation.

One thing Briggs stresses is how the issues faced by Margate’s young people didn’t magically appear overnight with Covid-19, as poverty and its side effects are far from new concerns. It’s a point picked up by Anna Darnell, Head of Strategy and Innovation at Youth Futures Foundation, a new nationwide non-profit established to tackle the roots of youth unemployment.

We were very much trying to raise the alarm bell before Covid,” she explains over Zoom, when there were already 750,000 young people outside of education, employment and training. What we know of that group is that around 400,000 weren’t even claiming benefits and were hidden from the system. Of that overall number, they were much more likely to have experienced some form of disadvantage.”

Covid simply urgently accelerated their work, with funding having to be pulled forward to keep the lights on at some of the organisations they support, who in turn support young people in need of help.

Their emphasis, says Darnell, is on treating underlying causes of youth unemployment. We take racial and ethnic disparities in youth unemployment rates very seriously, for instance. It’s one of the biggest things. It’s different for different groups. Yes, there’s a disparity between BAME [and] the white population story. But even within the BAME categorisation there are big differences, just as there are in terms of geography. It isn’t just between regions, but inside the regions themselves.”

It isn’t just careers, or the lack thereof, that present the biggest barrier for the UK’s young people. From a broken private rental sector that’ll strip-mine half your wages in exchange for a refitted garden shed and eye-wateringly expensive higher education to the curse of minimum-wage service sector drudge work, even pre-2020 this was a whole new world. One where the old twentieth-century assumptions about each generation having it better than their parents came to seem increasingly dog-eared. For many, this is just lived experience, too obvious to even be pointed out. And then you apply the hurtling topspin of a global pandemic-induced lockdown.

In late July, the BBC reported that the number of people aged 18 to 24 claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance had doubled since March, to more than 500,000. That’s a jump that makes even the fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown seem like a nothing-to-see-here blip. And, with similar numbers leaving education to enter a jobs market set to be decimated by what might be the deepest recession in centuries, immediate prospects can sometimes seem grim.

For AEE’s young people, it’s all about engagement first, though I hate jargon”, Briggs laughs. So, before thinking about how to get one of their young people into whatever’s left of the jobs market, there are other factors to consider. Some of its attendees are still adjusting to the idea of being part of any collective, let alone the often ridiculous rituals of the workplace. We might have a young person living in care who isn’t engaging with any services, education or otherwise. You then have some who are really just gagging to engage: they love music, film or whatever else. It’s about treating them as individuals.”

Sarah Furniss-Roe is one of AEE’s young people. She’s worked with them for a couple of years now, since sixth form, and lives in Ramsgate, five miles down the road. She writes to me over email that it’s smaller than Margate and more serene. The last two years have done wonders for her. I’ve learned so many new things. Now I can use music software, editing software, cameras… I can do 3D art, digital art – and I’m still learning.”

Although Ramsgate will always be home, and even though her new skills haven’t yet resulted in a job, Furniss-Roe has big plans for the future, including travelling the world. Until then, she’d like to stay in the town, to get a job here, hopefully, one in the creative arts industry. I’m actually hoping to study for a bit longer in various forms of art, whether it be alongside a job or without”. One day, she’d even like to work somewhere like AEE, helping others develop their own unique work, building their confidence and working to deliver projects.

The conversation around regional disparities in the UK usually pits an almost-always ill-defined and nebulous idea of the north” (a lazy byword for pockets of northern England) against the south” (as a lazy byword for the richer districts of London). As if they were two distended and divorced limbs on a creaking body. Still, having to make a geographical move for work to better resourced, usually more populous parts of the country is a reality, as it has been for generations. So even though Sarah is happy in her hometown, it’s likely she might have to move for the sort of employment she ultimately wants. But even though London is under two hours away, for many of Thanet’s disadvantaged young people, it can feel like a different galaxy.

There was something else I wanted to know. Over the past few months, I’d picked up another frequency emitting from friends around the country: a kind of constant, low-wattage anxiety from those already in work. Was the axe about to fall in their industry? And if so, when and at what velocity? It’s one of 2020’s wonderful gifts that even the most stable workplaces have been shaken up and forced to swap concrete foundations for quicksand.

24-year-old Lucy tells me that she’s been lucky so far. For the past six years, she’s worked as a groundskeeper at two holiday parks in Thanet. It’s a busy job, with no two days the same, covering everything from trimming hedges and plumbing to looking after the wildlife and helping educate visitors on conservation. It’s a role she loves, though it’s one she sort of fell into back in 2014. Originally I was just helping out. I think it was about six weeks before I was approached and asked whether I would like to join the team”.

Born and bred in Thanet, she adds that she fully appreciates having such a fulfilling job. It wasn’t always so easy. I’d found it incredibly difficult to find something that wasn’t a zero-hour contract or hours that matched up with my personal life. I had taken the route of going to the jobcentre to try and help me find something but found myself being put on courses which really wasted time more than anything. It was very frustrating.”

After the precarious grind of temporary, stop-start placements, she was thrilled about getting the groundskeeper role. The pandemic has been hard. For the first three months, the park was empty, with the future looking suddenly uncertain. It was extremely weird and a big shock to many [of us]. The park would have been bustling around this time of year. Fortunately, the grass and hedges never stop growing and the plants still need watering, so not too much changed for me [so far], other than feeling like the only person in the world.” The park’s long-term future remains unclear, and it’s her friends that Lucy worries about, even more than herself, particularly those in hospitality or events who have seen their incomes decimated. I have a lot of friends in the music industry who are finding it hard considering there are no gigs or performances. A lot of the local venues here are finding it tough to stay positive in these current times.”

An hour or so after meeting Ollie Briggs back at AEE, I found myself sitting down for a coffee at the beach with Laura Owen. She’s head of the Young Associates Programme at Open School East, an arts space that opened its doors in 2017 after relocating from East London. Laura grew up in Thanet, attended art school in London and worked in various education jobs for a few years before returning a few years ago in her late twenties. The programme launched in September 2019: it’s a free, year-long art and design programme for up to 15 students, open to any young person in East Kent. Its function, Owen says, is akin to a creative apprenticeship.

We are a school and they do come to us three days a week, but the atmosphere we try to create is between a youth club and an art school. At the end of the day, our kids also need their qualifications and that bit of paper. And they really want it. It’s what they recognise as achievement, and you need that for almost any entry-level job. There’s also the practical skills of being able to craft with your hands or work digitally, as well as the pastoral work and just making sure [the young people] feel positive about themselves.”

Of course, the creative industries aren’t the only route. Not everyone aspires to the arts, in Margate or anywhere else in the country. In July the government announced a new scheme: every firm that hires a new apprentice aged 18 to 24 between August and January 2021 will be given £2,000. There is also a £32 million boost, over two years, for the National Careers Service. Headline-grabbing sums, but hardly enough considering the fact the numbers of apprenticeships were already in sorry decline at the end of 2019. And what good is a beefed-up advice service in a jobs market about to experience a squeeze like no other time in living history?

Life often throws up tough choices. For one of Owen’s kids, the offer of a steady cleaning job trumped staying on in the programme. It was, she recognises, a pragmatic choice: when the other options were uncertainty, or even a shot at a debt-laden higher education, it made sense. But that doesn’t mean that new opportunities won’t arise. What’s exciting is that there is an art scene now in Margate. There are small creative agencies here. Ideally, we’d look to tap into that for work experience, but it has to be the right people. It can’t just be an intern taking on admin work. It has to be people that genuinely want to nurture and support them.”

On the way back to the train station, the streets were busier than earlier. Clutches of people sat nursing pints outside the few open pubs, in no particular rush to be anywhere. The crowd on the beach seemed that bit younger as the afternoon bled into early evening, a few degrees louder and livelier.

But outside the arcade it was fairly quiet, the bored boys from earlier nowhere to be seen. It feels like the last thing Margate needs is another catalogue of clichés. The old problems didn’t evaporate with its partial regeneration, just as its current challenges weren’t swept in by the pandemic, as the troubles and stresses for its young people aren’t unique to the area, but are the struggles of young people across the country. Predicting the future is impossible, but it seems certain enough that whatever difficulties the post-Covid future holds for Margate’s young people, they won’t be facing them alone.

Olivia Nash, 21

I have a few friends who are trying to get jobs but there’s nothing. I feel like there’s never been many around here but it’s definitely got worse. This area is a dead end. You have to travel a bit out to get anything and even then it’s just retail or cafe work.”

Mia Dillon, 17

I was meant to be doing a placement next month but it’s been scaled back to a three-day online Zoom call. For the moment it’s quite hard to tell how the pandemic will affect young people long term as there are just no jobs out there at the moment and I can’t see it getting any better.”

Lizzi Pottinger, 17 and Sade Allison, 17

Lizzi: I feel like it’s going to be really difficult to get a job after uni. A lot of people are putting off going this year, which is going to make it even more competitive. You also don’t know what jobs are going to be available after this, so I guess we’re just going to have to ride it out.”

Sade: I had one job a while ago but I got paid £3.50 an hour so I quit. There’s never been that much work around here, but the pandemic has definitely made it even harder to get a job.”

Char May, 22

I didn’t get a graduation. We were supposed to have a degree show but obviously that was cancelled as well. It’s annoying because they’re a great opportunity to network and hand out your business cards, and now I’m not going to meet as many people who can help you get work. I had a couple of Zoom calls with studios but it’s not the same as a face-to-face meeting. For a lot of the creative industry, a huge part of it is face-to-face networking but we’ve lost that and I don’t think we’re going to get it back.”

Sabrina Latchman, 22

I’m in my second year and I wanted to do a year in industry next year, but because of what happened a lot of the years in industries were cancelled. I wanted to go into print journalism, that’s why the year in industry was a downfall because I thought that was my time to get more experience and meet more people because here in Margate there isn’t any opportunity to meet industry people. And now it feels like everything is so daunting because when I graduate, it’s going to be even worse than it is now.”

Louis St.Cyr-Clery, 20 and Naomi Coker, 20

Louis: Because there’s a lot of unemployment right now, the job market is going to be really saturated. And trying to find a job, especially for a uni student, is going to be quite hard. It’s hard to be hopeful because right now it’s looking pretty dim. We haven’t really seen the light at the end of the tunnel yet and I feel like this impact could go on for quite a few years.”

Naomi: I had a placement year lined up this year. Because I do a psychology degree, it was going to be a really good experience for my future career prospects. But they’ve had to make it online for the first few months. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are in my position and it’s obviously going to impact our employability when we graduate because we haven’t had as much experience as we should have done.”

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