My generation’s most basic needs have become aspirational. They are something to be yearned for. Something to be earned. Something our society cannot guarantee us, despite continuing economic growth. A secure job. A living wage. A standard working week. A home – either rented or owned.
Each day we contend with the decline in our economic wellbeing, our precarious employment status, unemployment figures which mask the real issues of youth underemployment, and the pressing need for the return of youth unionisation.
Unemployment rates for the UK, US, and Ireland continue to fall. They are 4.2 per cent, 4.3 per cent and 6.2 per cent respectively (July, 2017). Youth unemployment figures trend downwards also. And yet, working poverty among young workers grows malignantly.
We are forgetting that the worker also exists as a member of society
Some 78 per cent of British 18-21 year olds earn less than the living wage – a mere £8.75 per hour. The national minimum wage in the UK is £7.50 per hour. The £1.25 difference between it and the living wage is the difference between a young worker skipping meals to pay rent on time, and not.
If the living wage is a pay scale calculated to be that of an appropriate amount of money to pay a worker so they can live, how is it possible, in a legal or moral sense to pay someone less? We are witnessing a concerted effort to devalue labour, where the primary concern of business is profit, not the economic wellbeing of its employees.
And yet the achievement of a living wage rate does not guarantee the young workers escape from the ironic reality of working poverty – which affects one in five young Americans. In the past decade, the grim spectre of precarious employment has reared its ugly head. It is defined as:“Employment which is insecure, uncertain or unpredictable from the point of view of the worker.”
Casualisation of work
It’s zero-hour contracts. Contract work. The Gig Economy; sold to young people as a lifestyle choice, while masking the increasing casualisation of work, denigration of workers’ rights, and abandonment of young workers. For the contractor/freelancer/free agent, the employer assumes no responsibility for the worker – and the worker’s rights becomes the sole responsibility of the worker.
While this set-up suits certain industries and activities, where having the ability to move fluidly between projects is desirable (design, creative, entertainment), it has become an increasingly popular hiring trend in industries where it is highly inappropriate (retail, restaurants, office administration). Here it is known as “domestic outsourcing” and is considered smart, cost-effective business practice.
The employer washes their hands of the worker. Their immediate utility is the sole concern. From a profit point of view, absolutely we can appreciate the logic. However, we forget that the worker also exists as a member of society, and when business is allowed to use and exploit people in this manner, we endanger societal cohesiveness. Equally, young workers are the most likely to be exploited. In Ireland, workers aged 15-34, represent 61 per cent of those considered to be in a position of precarious employment.
Alongside the casualisation of work, a concerted effort to depreciate the value of labour and increased barriers of entry to work, young workers are also homeless. As working adults, young people cannot afford to move into a place of their own – a monumental milestone missed.
Since 2012, Irish rents are up 60 per cent. House prices are up 40 per cent. And disposable income is up 8 per cent.
In the same period, youth homelessness is up 91 per cent and, since 2006, we have doubled the number of adult children living at home – 460,000 people in 2016.
Greedy older generation
This grim state of affairs targets young people, as cash-strapped young workers contend with cash-rich property prospectors, pay exploitative rent and suffer the consequences of a greedy older generation more concerned by profit, than their children’s economic and general wellbeing.
The free market needs a firm hand because the invisible one has lost its grip
The profit-driven exploitation of young workers reveals a profound misunderstanding by baby boomers and generation Xers, of the financial mechanics of the pension industry. Millennials aren’t contributing to pensions, and with a rapidly aging population, we must wonder who is funding these pensions. And as a millennial, I wonder “What’s in it for me?”
There is a solution though. And typically, the solution rests in the hands of the young. Millennials are set to become the largest demographic in the workforce in 2020. During a period when we are witnessing record low union subscriptions, especially among young workers, there is good reason to consider a new drive to encourage youth unionisation and engender a collective mindset.
The neoliberal project has encouraged us to adopt a hyper-individualistic approach to life and work. For all the speak of teamwork, in this economy the individual reigns supreme and it is destroying young workers. The present system has become unfeasible. The neoliberal project needs to be reeled back in. The free market needs a firm hand because the invisible one has lost its grip.
Young workers must accept that our fate relies on our co-operation. If I accept an unpaid internship, I have undercut my generation. I have not only devalued my labour but that of my peers too. I am complicit in the denigration of my generation.
We must accept our value. We must agree in unison that we have value. And together we must demand it – because if we don’t, no one else will. Because exploiting millennials has become too profitable (for now).
Fionn Rogan works in Insights and Strategy as part of The Youth Lab at marketing agency Thinkhouse