Three key themes are struck again, again and again when young people are discussed by politicians.
The first is that young people are innocent: we need to protect them from both themselves and predators. They tend to be naïve about the way of the world and, therefore, they just do not know what is good for them. This accusation of naivety is often levelled at young people involved in politics and activism, particularly in the environmental movement.
The second thing you often hear about young people is that they are potential criminals and perpetrators of anti-social behaviours. Here, every young person carries the stigma of being disrespectful, aggressive and criminally inclined.
And the third great theme about the youth is their laziness and indifference. Watch out for the "whatever" generation. This is the new group of Paxton kids who think that they are too good for the rest of us. The story here is that they have all had it far too good for too long and don’t know what it means to do a hard day’s work.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott rolled out all three of these yesterday when he proposed the concept of an age test for unemployment benefits. In fact, Abbott brought a "one stone, several birds" approach to the table. His idea? Get the under-30s off the dole to encourage them to move west and fill labour shortages in the resources sector. It is a policy that, according to Tony Abbott, will create incentives for young people to work, take pressure off the welfare system, solve the skills problem and reduce the need for skilled migrants.
In other words, working in the resources sector will ensure that young people experience a hard day’s work, get them off the dole (and off the streets) and ensure that they play a productive role in the Australian economy. The naivety problem will be solved: how can you be a tree-hugging hippie when you are digging a hole and working down the mine?
This proposal will no doubt have its supporters. I am sure that Alan Jones and Piers Akerman will talk about how this is a brilliant, visionary and brave scheme. They may even suggest an alternative such as national service. Who knows, maybe Abbott will combine both and force young, unemployed people to join the army first, and as part of their service, work in the mines.
There are plenty of problems with this latest example of Abbott’s apparently impromptu policy-making. For the sake of brevity, I will dwell on just three.
The first is that this "send them to the mines" approach relies on the simple belief that labour is perfectly mobile — in terms of both skills and space. That is, in first year economics when you are taught about the world of "perfect competition", you learn that labour can move between firms and sectors with little problem. This is simply a model used to teach first year students about the way an economy works in theory.
To apply this to the real world is ludicrous. Few people are perfectly mobile either with their skills or their networks. Sure, some people do move around for work — but such decisions are very difficult. Telling a 25-year-old unemployed person from Maroubra, Mt Druitt or Wagga Wagga to make their way to Western Australia where there are resource jobs is effectively telling them to remove themselves from their support networks and from much of what they know. This isn’t impossible — but for individuals and for their families, it is hardly as straightforward as jumping on a plane.
Then there is the issue of skills. This is a concern that has managed to bring Steven Smyth, from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Queensland Resources Council director, Michael Roche, into agreement. When mining and union bosses agree, it’s worth paying attention. Both Roche and Smyth are on record as saying Abbott’s proposal indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the skills shortage. Steven Smyth put it succinctly: "To take people and say ‘right, you can go and work in an underground coal mine or an open cut coal mine’ without having the proper training, the skills and the competency I think would be disastrous."
The second problem with Abbott’s quick fix is that it totally misconstrues the changing nature of career paths and experience in our contemporary society. The image of the unemployed young person surfing on the coast and living it up is obsolete.
Few of us, let alone people under 30, will have "a job for life". Most of us will change firms and will alter our career paths. "Job progress" no longer means staying with just one firm. It can mean taking opportunities on shorter term casual contracts rather than waiting for a promotion. This precarious position means many young workers find themselves in a dilemma: do I take a contract that may further my career but only last me for a few months followed by the risk of unemployment, or stay in a position that is less fulfilling but more stable?
This is the much-vaunted "flexible" workforce — and while it suits some, it creates real difficulties and instabilities for many others. This is particularly the case for workers early in their careers who are involved in the creative industries and academia and find themselves jumping from contract to contract.
Abbott’s plan simply ignores this reality and takes the position that any stable job — such as digging a hole — will develop your career. Will going off to do hard labour in a mine develop someone’s life career path in any meaningful fashion? Unless they want a job in mining, then the answer is probably no.
The third problem with Abbott’s proposal is that it removes the onus on governments to provide either meaningful work or training for citizens. With this policy, Abbott is essentially saying "it is up to the private sector, what can governments do anyway?" This conforms to the path identified by German sociologist Ulrich Beck in his work on the "risk society". Beck observes that governments around the world are throwing their hands up and arguing that the risk of success or failure lies at the feet of the individual — not with society, and certainly not with governments. Implicit in Abbott’s proposal is the belief that if you do not have a job it is your fault because you are a job snob. And that being so, we will force you to take one.
When Abbott was elected Opposition Leader, he asked the press not to judge him regarding his past deeds but only on his current performance. Much of the Australian media seems to have obliged, and he hasn’t copped much criticism about his bungles thus far. Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Paul Howes — who at 28 is one of the nation’s youngest trade union leaders — dubbed this most recent gaffe "one of Tony Abbott’s Sarah Palin moments".
This seems a fair description as Abbott has fundamentally misunderstood the political and social experience of young people at work. The question is, will it end Abbott’s media honeymoon?
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