Students at disadvantaged schools are six times more likely than their counterparts in wealthy schools to rate getting a job as one of the things they value most (compared to wealthy school students’ concerns with stress and body image).
These recent findings by Mission Australia deserve a serious response.
Today’s young Australians trying to enter the world of work face a real predicament. They’ve been born into one of the most affluent eras in human history and yet the mechanisms for dealing with such remarkable times have seldom, if ever, been so ill-matched to the task.
Crucially, the lack of flexibility in the youth labour market means that appallingly high percentages of young people are excluded from employment. The social cost of this scarcely bears thinking about — alcoholism, violence, drugs, homelessness, teenage pregnancy, poor health — the list is all too familiar.
While it is commonplace to suggest there are no simple solutions, there is something close to a panacea for these ills, a solution the disadvantaged students themselves understand all too well, and that is a job.
But thanks to the protectionism mentality that has so captured our political elites, such a panacea is, for them, a distant dream. Young people who are desperately looking to get a foot on the employment ladder continue to be condemned to a life without work.
It is 2012 and yet Australia’s “rear-view mirror” approach to workplace relations is still locked into a 19th-century theory of “conflicting interests” — a theory completely at odds with the realities of the modern world and the modern workplace. The notion of voluntary acceptance of a wage that might be unrelated to an award offends those who see this only as “exploitation”.
But this view is demeaning to those it claims to be protecting. The only sensible option is for wage rates to be based on the value of the learning the employee receives (think of student teachers and countless other university student courses) and the value of the work the person purchasing it obtains.
It is, practically speaking, impossible for third parties, other than perhaps the parents of a junior employee, to make judgements about what is or is not in the junior employee’s best interests. This regulatory system that we have, which excludes so many from employment and prevents employers from giving them work, must eventually be exposed for the scandal that it is.
To those most directly affected by the intransigence of the process it is increasingly plain that it has less to do with concerns about social justice and a lot to do with the highly politicised role of those involved in so-called “workplace relations”. When the young jobless realise that it is politics — rather than economic or social considerations — that are blocking their access to the world of work, we can expect their response to be a very bitter one.
At some point we are going to have to stop deluding ourselves that we can increase the price of goods or services — like labour — without it resulting in a decrease in demand for those goods and services. Price does matter. And “pricing young people out of the job market” is not just employer rhetoric, but a harsh reality.
Historically, the collapse of this employment-generating system is well documented. In 1951, the cost of a first-year apprentice was approximately 7.5 per cent of a tradesman’s wage — and there were no unemployed teenagers.
By the 1970s, the cost had doubled to 15 per cent — and the term “youth unemployment” began to have some currency. It is now 40 per cent and youth unemployment has become one of the “single most important social problems of our time”.
Like most university students, those apprentices have long forgotten their lean times and have done very nicely (have you tried calling a plumber or electrician lately?).
From a young person’s perspective, there must be something especially galling and hypocritical about society’s double standards regarding employment. On the one hand, we praise young people who undertake volunteer work, i.e., who work for nothing, and on the other hold in high regard those who have found employment.
Yet woe betide anyone who offers or accepts any arrangement in between! It is a “no-go” area despite it being fertile ground for mutually acceptable and agreeable arrangements between the parties.
Youth unemployment is costing the Australian community billions of dollars each year.
It is inconceivable that the present system with all its inflexibilities will be allowed to continue indefinitely to exclude so many of our young from the world of work. Surely not even the most relentless demonisation of the motives of employers could achieve that end.
Bob Day AO is federal chairman of the Family First Party.