How Britain’s economy has wronged young people for decades
Conditions for young people in the UK are bleak. Young people are more likely to be unemployed than all-age workers, and are more likely to be in low-paid jobs when employed. National minimum wage laws allow lawful discrimination against young people as they mean a young worker can be paid lessthan those over the age of 24 for doing the same job.
Young people have worse pension opportunities than previous generations and suffer from a housing market characterised by high rents and purchase costs. They are also paying record levels of tuition fees for university, as well as spending more on accessing training and skills in a system of provision that is increasingly driven by profit.
Media portrayals of young people compound the problem and are rife with discriminatory language. Young people are labelled lazy, idle “snowflakes” and are blamed for their own problems. These circumstances lead to intergenerational resentment between so-called “millennials” and “baby boomers”.
This approach is limited for two reasons. First, it ignores social class inequalities, which are much worse. Second, it distracts from the underlying causes of the problems facing young people which are the result of economic and political changes since the 1970s.
Longer term issues
The 2007 economic crisis, recession and imposition of austerity made things harder for young people – youth unemployment went up, decent jobs became scarcer, and public spending was hugely reduced in a way which hit those already on the margins of labour markets. But what’s less known is that conditions for young people had actually been worsening prior to 2007.
The financial crisis intensified things, but I’ve found in my research that issues faced by young people now are more the result of longer term changes in the UK political economy which began in the 1970s and were accelerated in the 1980s. In this period, there were fundamental changes to what the UK economy produced, which led to changes in labour markets and altered government policy.
Manufacturing began to decline as a major part of the UK economy from the 1960s. This decline was exacerbated by the global economic crisis in the early 1970s, leading to the government abandoning Keynesian economic policies which had been committed to full (male) employment. In the 1980s, the government favoured controlling inflation at the expense of jobs, leading to millions becoming unemployed.
This point is key because the manufacturing sector was a source of good jobs (usually for men) in large engineering firms. In these sectors there were specific, “sheltered” entry points for young people meaning they could get a job – often with few qualifications – acquire skills and training, and progress into more senior roles.
Government policy in the 1980s heavily reduced the number of jobs in the public sector in areas such as local government and utilities like water, gas, electricity, communications and railways. All of these utilities were privatised and suffered heavy job losses as their new owners cut staff to turn a profit. Young people suffered as training schemes were axed and opportunities for internal progression disappeared.
Government policies since the 1980s have generally worsened things for young people. Labour markets have been deregulated in an attempt to make the UK compete on the basis of low wages rather than high quality work. A crucial change has been the weakening of trade unions, which act as a mechanism to increase wages and reduce inequality.
The election of New Labour in 1997 did little to undo the changes of previous decades and in some instances further locked them in. The result is young workers in 2019 experience labour market conditions that are far worse than in previous decades.
Employment is now primarily in the service sector where there are fewer opportunities than in manufacturing to increase productivity by using technology, and therefore productivity increases are more likely to come from intensifying working conditions. The jobs available are increasingly polarised between a section of extremely well-paid, high-level jobs and a steadily increasing amount of low-paid, low-skilled jobs. Too many young people find themselves in these jobs, often for long periods after they have ceased to be young.
First, don’t dismiss the problems of young people as being the result of their age. Young people do not experience poor conditions because they are young or because they are lazy. Young people work, and they experience poor working conditions because there has been a worsening of work and employment conditions in the UK since the 1970s. Young people therefore need to be thought of as workers first and foremost.
Second, if conditions of work are to improve, then workers need to organise. Young people need to join trade unions, and trade unions need to actively engage with young members. Unions need to redouble their efforts to organise in small, privately owned firms where young people often work. They also need to challenge the lawful discrimination of young people which occurs via the pay and pensions system.
Finally, the UK urgently needs to change the nature of its economy. To this end, institutional pressure from trade unions needs to be linked to larger efforts to shift the UK economy away from a reliance on esoteric finance and low-paid service sector work. To achieve this, a detailed industrial strategy and substantive programme of investment that undoes the violence of austerity would be a solid starting point.