No Country for Young Men (or Women)

Australia is becoming an increasingly inhospitable place for youth entering the workforce. This first graph indicates that youth unemployment has remained 12 years after the Global Financial crisis and has not reached the same lows since 2001.

Additional to youth unemployment’s systemic and historic aspect, COVID-19 has further skyrocketed youth unemployment figures.

Apart from the empirical observations that young Australians are subject to the focal points of exploitative forces within society, these issues find further cogent expression through factually-sound anecdotal examples.

Whether one’s path to the workforce takes the form of an apprenticeship, a university degree, or vocational education; the exploitation of the youth (enabled by both major parties) begins early.

Take an apprenticeship. Those who wish to learn a trade are forced to work for years at very low pay, while simultaneously paying fees for relevant certifications and funding their own living costs. Perhaps some would hesitate to call the apprentice relationship an ‘exploitative’ one, given that it clearly is one of mutual gain between master and apprentice. (Apprentice gets the chance to enter an exclusively licensed profession, Master gets cheap labour). Yet the miniscule wages, and power imbalances within apprenticeships are a detriment to the youth when they do their initial training.

Turning now to university degrees, one struggles to think of a product that has inflated in price so highly while its value has diminished so rapidly. Demand is maintained however, because the youth know that for the majority of worthwhile middle class jobs, obtaining a university degree is a pro-forma requirement. Another, perhaps more important reason for its maintained demand is the role of the university as the de-facto social hubs of Australia’s adult youth. A good campus provides friends, relationships, sports, exchange opportunities; a ticket to a temporary good life.

Rather than simply allow the youth to enjoy their salad days, Australia has made the collective decision to extract as much economic rent from the youth as possible. Charges of $100k for Arts or Commerce degrees, are outrageous for qualifications involving no overhead cost. To further inflame the outrage; the extreme margins charged by universities are not being used to subsidise those studying other more expensive courses to teach. Neither have they been used to fund a renaissance in Australian research. Instead money has gone to white elephant construction projects, and an increasingly bloviated university administration.

Vocational education can be dealt with briefly. The sector was utterly destroyed by privatization reforms brought forward by the Rudd/Gillard era. Training courses that should have overheads of mere hundreds of dollars, charge in the thousands. The exploitation of TAFE training is enabled by the overregulation of employees, through an overbroad system of licensing employment. Even burger flippers jobs are attempting to exploit employees through the coerced enrollment of the youth into useless paper mill degree factories 

But let’s step aside from the abysmal state of Australian education for the moment. Let us look at the job market instead structurally for how it looks to young employees as they enter the workforce.

Here too we find horror. Those entering blue collar work face the prospect of union jobs that are rapidly disappearing, with unionised workforces increasingly under attack from collaboration between work sites and labour hire companies. One need only look at the CUB dispute to understand that the exploitative labour hire model; (originally a means to break the back of the CFMEU), has now expanded as the standard model for Australian manual work. The Amazon MEL1 facility in Dandenong exclusively operates through use of labour hire firms, creating a tyrannical working environment with no employee voice, protections, and receding wages.

But let’s not delude ourselves into the comfort that the exploitative workplace practices of labour hire firms are limited to those performing manual work. The outsource economy has well and truly entered the office space. Blue chip firms retain temporary employees to fulfil functions; all the way down from senior management. Even government departments are known to now primarily roles through the use of labour hire companies; with lowered wages, no ability to voice concerns at work, and instant dismissal at any time; made possible by perma-casual contracts.

We may not have collectively realised it yet, but the ‘accord’ is dead. Employment relations in Australia have moved on beyond the imagined stalemate of the 90s living in the heads of industrial relations advocates of all kinds. The reality for the youth, the only demographic consistently exposed to the economy’s entry-level; is that the Australian workforce is now fully Japanified. We now live in a workforce where a tiny number of ‘permanent’ employment roles are highly prized, and dished out sparingly to the future managers, the meritocratic elite; while the rest of the workforce is expected to survive on a minimal level of stability and remuneration.

Australia needs to invest in its youth, in the provision of services and in the provision of workplace protection. Otherwise, Australia risks generating a permanent underclass; a generation of people unable to access the stability needed for family, comfort, or fulfillment.

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