The politics of youth

In 1986 Timbuk3 sang, “the future’s so bright I gotta wear shades”.

They captured the mood of a generation but the song was generally misinterpreted as a graduation theme song but in reality, as we say in Australia, it was “taking the piss”:

“I gotta job waiting for my graduation. Fifty thou a year will buy a lotta beer. Things are going great, and they’re only getting better.”

Twenty six years later the song is still super but even the mischaracterised optimism has gone: the International Labour Organisation is now warning of a generation “scarred” by a worsening global youth employment crisis, and Australia is not immune. For many young Australians this isn’t “the Lucky Country”, and the notion that “We’ve never had it so good” is far from their reality. Will Australia learn the lessons and heed the warnings from the Arab Spring or the London riots?

According to the International Labor Organisation the world needs 600 million new jobs in the next decade to cope with a rising population and the effects of the financial crisis.

The Global Employment Trends for Youth: 2011 Update describes how the:

“bad luck of the generation entering the labour market in the years of the Great Recession brings not only current discomfort from unemployment, under-employment and the stress of social hazards associated with joblessness and prolonged inactivity, but also longer term consequences in terms of lower future wages and distrust of the political and economic system.”

The report notes that this collective frustration among youth has been a contributing factor to protest movements around the world this year, as it becomes increasingly difficult for young people to find anything other than part-time and temporary work.

Youth unemployment in Spain is 51.4 per cent, in Greece 46.6 per cent, in Portugal 30.7 per cent; in November youth unemployment in Britain reached 22 per cent of those aged 16 to 24, and in the United States the youth unemployment rate is 23 per cent. The percentages are as high across the Arab world, perhaps even higher. And educated young people who do manage to get work find no comfort in being “last in, first out” in times of economic recession.

What about Australia? When it comes to youth unemployment figures for 15-19-years-olds Professor Bill Mitchell, from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity, suggests that:

“…If you add the 82,000 back into the official unemployed then the 15-19 unemployment rate rises to 22.6 per cent rather than the 14.9 per cent recorded as the official unemployment rate by the ABS. Add that to the underemployment rate (around 13.5 per cent – noting that ABS only publish this for the 15-24-year-olds so we are approximating) – and you get the broad labour force underutilisation rate for teenagers of around 38 per cent. Read that again – 38 per cent. That is up there with the worst nations in the world – developed or otherwise.”

Pierre Laernoes, in a review of the (highly recommended) book ‘Time for Outrage’ by French diplomat, member of the French Resistance and concentration camp survivor Stéphane Hessel, wrote:

“One oft-debated issue these days is insecurity. At the core of this problem is often youth. We should remember that the violence and criminality arising from youth in socio-economic difficulty, is that the ones who are rejected by society will reject it in turn. Prevention is key. It is a matter of recognising one’s dignity.

Today’s youth is the weak link, as it remains the least integrated element in the global economy – but in another way, it could also be the strongest link, owing to the enormous energy, the great aspiration, and the vast capacity for revolt it possesses.

As such, the youth can be explosive and act as an emancipator, but it can also be destructive if rejected and marginalised. Examples are numerous: France in 2005, Tunisia in early 2011, London in the summer of 2011. Again, the key element to remember is the need to recognise the dignity of those individuals.”

That widespread marginalisation is why it is so extraordinary that citizens around the world don’t quite get what the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about. More than 60 per cent of Australians say they don’t understand the objectives or the motivations behind this global initiative. Hello? Has self-interest and profit seeking muted our sense of social responsibility and numbed our collective conscience?

Vast numbers of young people all around the globe know firsthand that profit-led economic strategy hasn’t delivered jobs and incomes. There’s a colossal blockage in the “trickle down” s-bend.

Many young people intellectualise the state of the nation and see that they will be paying for the bail outs, the desertification of the planet and the ever increasing likelihood of “an exchange” of the nuclear variety. They have no jobs, or casualised and low-paid jobs, and can’t afford the glittery prizes tempting them on the box. They lay the blame squarely at the feet of the ‘money elite’ for sucking the juice out of their futures. The US Federal Reserve is their enemy’s ‘HQ’, with its secret loan bailouts of banks during the global financial crisis to the tune of $7.77 trillion (some say it’s $16 trillion, but either way it reveals who’s running the show), and that’s on top of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program. Excessive government responses to the ongoing non-violent protests in the West only emphasise the reality of democracies that depend on tear gas, capsicum spray, police brutality and citizen surveillance. They have left many young people questioning whose interests their government serves.

The other risk is that disenfranchised young people who don’t intellectualise their problems instead search for the self-worth or dignity they might otherwise derive from paid employment by following people or groups who use hope as a tool to recruit, misdirect and channel their anger and frustration towards minority groups or immigrants or asylum seekers or intellectuals or persons of different faith or nationality. Impressionable young minds corrupted with dangerous ideologies. History has shown how such redirection of popular frustration has played out with devastating consequences, and it’s sobering to note recurrent reports of the rise of neo-Nazi groups across Europe.

If you then add poverty and high food prices to high youth unemployment (as occurred in Tunisia and Egypt, as acknowledged by the International Food Policy Research Institute) you have the perfect storm. One needs little imagination to appreciate how hunger would focus one’s mind. That instinct to survive may help to explain the grit, bravery and tenacity of the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, for example. When the many become desperate, really desperate, they’re hardly going to accommodate the social and political order bestowed upon them by the insulated and corrupt.

Food, and the price people have to pay for it, in turn depends on oil. Oil in fertilisers, in tractors for ploughing, sowing and harvesting, in transport from the farm to places for storage, manufacturing and distribution, and so on. If oil prices rise, as they inevitably will, so too will the price of food. Unfortunately, not all young unemployed people or their families – either here or abroad – live in accommodation conducive to self-sufficient kitchen gardens or have the skills to develop them. Usually cash-strapped charities become the backstop, to the extent that they can cope with the demand.

In its January 2012 report ‘Resolving the Food Crisis’ the Global Development and Environment Institute and Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy criticised increasing deregulation of commodity markets and increasing financial speculation in agricultural commodities, increasing land use for non-food agricultural crops (like biofuels for industrial uses) and a bias toward cash crops for export over food production for domestic use. Rising oil prices are likely to exacerbate this profit-driven approach to agriculture, and in turn will reinforce the trend of rising food prices.

Although Australia has that critical ingredient for unrest – high youth unemployment – we’re lucky, for now at least, that our young people still have food in their bellies. But there are more twists and turns, like the irony that Australia has both an ageing population heading into retirement and high youth unemployment and an inadequately skilled workforce. Governments warn us about the dire consequences of the first, hide the true extent of the second and bemoan but do little about the third.

One small not-for-profit organisation in the Hunter Valley is doing some heavy lifting to address this problem. Youth Express launched an advertising campaign – “Time to train” – this week, urging businesses to train, employ and mentor young people in their local areas.

The Government was on the right track when it included a training clause as part of its procurement process when it was building school halls, but that was always doomed to fail because training requires more than one-off, short-term contracts. According to Youth Express, what’s needed is the employment and training of young people sourced from the area where the jobs are available on an ongoing basis; there is also a need for legislation making it mandatory for training to be included in the cost of doing business, particularly in the resource sector. That prompts mining companies to include a training clause in their tender documents, which would ensure that smaller sub-contractors are training young people in their local areas, and at no cost to them because it is factored into the tender price. A contract like that for three to five years gives a young person the chance to receive training over an appropriate period of time, and ultimately everyone benefits including the mining company.

Government should also be encouraging businesses to incorporate training into their business models. They can do it: back in 1990 the Government introduced the Training Guarantee Levy (TGL) to:

‘raise the training-of-staff efforts of Australian enterprises, in both the private sector and the public sector.  Some sectors in the Australian economy had become concerned that the skills base had been eroding, leaving Australia firms increasing less able to compete, both in international markets and domestically. Surveys conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) had shown that many firms did not undertake any staff training at all, and many more provided only minimal training (although the average amounts overall were above the designated proportions as outlined below). In the absence of any substantive commitments by employers to increase their levels of training, and with apparently widespread concern that trained staff were being ‘poached’ by firms not prepared to invest in training their own existing staff, the Commonwealth government felt obliged to change the ‘culture’ of industry training, especially to encourage employers to regard training as an investment rather than a cost. It introduced what became known as the National Training Reform Agenda, of which the TGL was a component.’

Some experts believe the only reason the Training Guarantee Levy failed was because the legislation was not descriptive enough and many employers took advantage of definitional loopholes like the use of the word training instead of “accredited training”.

Youth Express also believes that a lot of our young people are not receiving adequate and appropriate careers advice at school, and aren’t being educated about job services available to them both before they leave school and afterwards (when it really is too late). For many the HSC is a less than fulfilling experience, and they may go on to University, drop out and in the meantime miss the cut off dates for TAFE. In the interim, they’re idle or soaking up insecure casual or part-time work, which hardly makes them self-sufficient. If they are disconnected or don’t secure work for more than six months many lose their self-esteem and become disengaged, and the “black dog” starts to bite. If they don’t qualify for the Youth Allowance (for example, because of parental income) they can, if they are told and if they show the initiative, get a referral from Centrelink to Job Services Australia. But if you think like a young person you can see why that isn’t an attractive proposition. And if you’re over 21 you can, again through Centrelink, get a referral to Job Services Australia and use their computers and services for job seeking, but you don’t get any case management. In other words, you feel like you’re on your own. Life sucks. Unfortunately Timbuk3, there’s no need for the sunnies anymore, thanks.

News of job cuts, voodoo economics and promises of budget surpluses mean little to our unemployed youth. When young people take to the streets it’s easy to shout out the bus window, “Get a job!”, and trivialise their problems as attitudinal. But like it or not these young people are citizens of this country and they’re here to stay. It is in everyone’s interests, both short-term and long-term, that resources be allocated, and that clever plans like that of Youth Express be encouraged and implemented, to ensure that young people have the opportunity to work and to “skill up” if Australia is to have any sort of future beyond selling off ever increasing bits of the family farm. The alternative is to just sit back and wait for the fireworks down the track.

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