Many Members of Parliament on both sides of politics believe that Generation Y’s expectations of government assistance are not only unrealistic, but insulting. Instead of understanding the demands of juggling study and work, they insist young people simply want to use Newstart as a means of funding a "luxurious" lifestyle.
Last week the Senate committee looking into the suitability of the Newstart allowance did not recommend the $50 increase sought by the Greens, social workers and even the Business Council of Australia. Instead, the committee made seven recommendations, including a proposed increase to the resources available to newly unemployed people; quick and efficient services in the first weeks and months of unemployment; and investments in skills and training programs for workers between the ages of 45 and 60.
These recommendations might be helpful but they don’t really address the issue at hand: that young people are doing it tough.
The Chairman of the Reference Committee that conducted this study, Liberal Senator Chris Back, told Triple J that a $50 increase to the Newstart allowance would put an undue burden on the Australian economy. He believes that students have idealistic expectations about the level of government assistance they deserve, and that he is firmly against funding students who have come back from their gap year, saying that after taking this time off, "you’d think that they’d have enough money to bankroll their study for at least two or three years".
Personally, I don’t know many people who have taken a year off. Of those who did, many travelled to impoverished countries, either volunteering or signing up for meagre pay to teach English. For Back to state "I don’t think it’s the role of the Australian tax payer to fund a gap year", reveals ignorance of the experience of many Australian students — and also fails to acknowledge the benefits of experiencing other cultures, learning independence, or even the necessity of taking a well deserved break.
Although Australia’s relatively low unemployment is praised nationally and worldwide, the reality is different for many young people. Traditionally, retail has been one of the most prolific employers of young people. However, recent economic unrest, an explosion in online shopping and a very high Australian dollar have had a severe impact on the retail sector, cutting jobs and hours for workers. With calls for increased work flexibility from various business sectors, employees are gradually forced to work only 3-hour shifts (or sometimes even less), at any time of day, while continuing to be counted as "employed".
Such working conditions give employers flexibility — but hamper the development of youth skills and knowledge. The Gillard Government has declared its commitment to raising the skills of Australian youth. With virtually all undergraduate places now available under the Commonwealth Assistance scheme, it’s made a good start. But the government’s and the Opposition’s persistent claims that the (maximum) $490 fortnightly Newstart payments are sufficient for students to live comfortably are widely disputed.
After attempting to live on the meagre $35 a day doled out to people on Newstart earlier this year, WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert was left with $12 after paying her "rent" and buying the essentials, such as food, hygiene products and transport. She said that such a low amount of money further pushes people into poverty, where lack of funding doesn’t even allow for a new haircut or suitable work clothes necessary for interviews.
The university sector is also often inflexible in acknowledging the reality of student life. Students are forced to negotiate between random working hours, often referred to as "flexible", extremely high rents and steadily declining work opportunities.
The Gillard Government won’t commit to supporting young people looking for work and studying. This lack of investment serves to widen the socio-economic gaps in our society: students whose parents can support them continue to benefit from an education, while those who are left on their own struggle to eat a nutritious meal, let alone have enough money and energy to look for work.
In addition, due to the shortage of work (in some areas of Australia, youth unemployment has reached nearly 40 per cent), young people are expected to possess skills and experience before even entering the workforce. This experience can only be achieved with financial support, which is once again dependent on the wealth and goodwill of that particular person’s family.
If this government wants a future, it needs to invest in its youth. Hiding behind low rates of unemployment and loud statements about educating all Australians can only take us so far.
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