We will say “Never Again” again

On Easter Sunday I spoke at the NASUWT conference in Bournemouth at a fringe meeting on austerity, here’s my speech:

young workers publication

Thanks for opportunity to speak. I’ve been coming to the conference for a few years and it’s great to be able to speak as Unions21 celebrates 20 years of serving the union movement.


Frances O’Grady talking about us at our conference earlier this month said: “I always like to think of Unions21 as the trade union movement’s answer to the TaxPayers’ Alliance – but with less money and more brains.” – which we appreciated.


And the support of NASUWT has always been appreciated through the years.


I’ve been asked to talk about how austerity has impacted on young people.


So: Unions21 as an organisation is 20 – what’s it like to be a 20-year-old person in austerity Britain? And can unions provide credible hope for young people?


I’m going to use some polling conducted last month by Survation for Unions21 of 1000 working people to help describe what it feels like to be a young worker and also present some of a report that was written previously for Unions21 by Professor Melanie Simms on young workers in the recession.


The two main effects of austerity I’ll concentrate on are unemployment and the decline in standards of living, but I also want to bring in some related effects around reduced training and opportunities.


Some of these issues are clear social issues and there’s also issues for unions to organise around too.

From the Prof Melanie Simms / Unions21 publication

Firstly, a recognised effect of austerity policies is unemployment due to government spending cuts.


Youth unemployment was on the increase again this month and nudging towards the one million mark.


Many politicians said ‘never again’ after the last recession of the 80s and 90s in which unemployment ‘scarred’ young people.


It’s been a case of never again, again.


The shock hitting the labour market from 2008 onwards has seen youth unemployment rising rapidly and it has remained stubbornly high.


I hear Michael Gove likes international comparisons, he might not like this one. The graph of youth unemployment here shows, predictably though Spain and Greece are on the left with approaching half of people under 25 out of work. And you can see it may soon be out-of-date with Cyprus next to the UK. But we’ve got a lot to learn from Germany, Austria and the Netherlands with around half of the rate of youth unemployment we have.


We know that early experiences of unemployment can ‘scar’ young people for the rest of their lives, associated with reduced wages, more problematic health outcomes, increased likelihood of future periods of unemployment and other social problems.


One of the first announcements of the coalition government in its drive for austerity was to withdraw the Future Jobs Fund. The failure was to weigh up successfully the risk of having a generation of young people without experience of work against the cost of action.


We also know that precarious work hurts young people. And according to our survey carried out last month. Within part-time workers those aged 18-34 are the group most likely to want to work full-time rather than part-time. As we know, the austerity economy is creating part-time and zero hours jobs rather than full-time jobs and so that’s an issue for young workers.


Cost of Living Graph from the Fair Work Commission First Report

Alongside unemployment a recognised effect of austerity policies is a fall in living standards.


Overall, our polling showed just 7% of people say their wages have increased above living costs in the past two years.


36% of young working people we surveyed say their wages have increased by less than the cost of living over the last two years. That’s higher than the 35-54 year old age band at 35% but lower than the 55+ age band at 42%.


In terms of policies aimed at increasing wages, young workers welcome radical solutions:


On the Living Wage, young workers are just slightly more likely to prefer to buy goods and services from employers that pay the Living Wage than older workers (48% to 47%).


They are more likely than any other age group to say that wages should be set centrally, across different sectors, negotiated between employers and unions. Which means unions have a receptive audience to remake the argument for wage boards and collective bargaining.


In the UK and beyond much of the discussion around young workers has focused on the number of jobs available. This ignores a very crucial issue of the quality of jobs available.


The UK aspires to be an internationally competitive economy once it recovers from the current economic challenges. As Professor Melanie Simms says in the Unions21 publication: It is therefore essential that policy makers do not lose sight of long-standing commitments to improve the skills and qualifications levels of employees.


According to our poll young people are more likely than any other age-group to say that their job is just a way to pay the bills rather than part of a career.


Over half are thinking about changing jobs – higher than any other age-group.


We asked people – if they were offered training or development opportunities, how it would effect their decision to leave their current job. Young people are the group that is most likely to be stay with an employer that offers training or development opportunities (70.7% 18-35 vs 66.9% 35-54 29.7% 54+)


87.8% of young people would work harder for an employer that offered training and development – again the highest age-group.


Yet in the age of austerity 14% of private sector and a third of public sector organisations have reduced training expenditure.


One of the phenomena that Professor Melanie Simms draws attention to in our publication is that as young people are becoming job seekers, their expectations about the roles they can look for and the work they accept seem to be ratcheting downwards. So graduates are accepting work that does not require degree level training, A-level students are accepting work that previously would have attracted those leaving school at 16, and those leaving with few qualifications are finding it difficult to enter the labour market at all.


Image from the Fair Work Commission First Report

Last issue I want to talk about is internships.


Many young people desperate for a job see unpaid internships as their best chance of getting experience of work.


Our polling on this was released by the TUC as part of their annual young members conference last weekend.


Many of the UK’s most sought after internships are to be found in the capital within its many film, television and media companies. But with the cost of living in London away from home now in excess of £1,000 a month, this is something that only young people from affluent families can even begin to consider, says the TUC.


When asked if they could afford to live away from home in London to take up an unpaid internship, only just over one in ten (12 per cent) of the 18-34 year olds questioned said they either definitely or probably had the money to be able to do so.


Over three in five (61 per cent) definitely didn’t have the means to live away from home in the capital to take up unpaid work, and a further 16 per cent said they probably wouldn’t be able to afford it.


I think it is a concern for all professional unions that unpaid work is becoming the norm when people look to access jobs – and I’m sure it’s a battle teaching unions will be fighting before long if they are not already.


Graph produced by Chris Gray

So what do young people want unions to do?


In our poll 19% of young people were union members, against 27% of 35 to 54-year-olds and 21% of over 55s.


They’re as concerned as other age groups about job security.


But pay is a bigger concern than older workers – as is making work more family friendly and getting the opportunity to train.


So this gives a starting point for issues around which unions can organise young workers.


But by the way, they were 10% less likely to know if there was a union present in their workplace – so our work is cut out there.


So in summary:


It’s right to be having this session with people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to raising the opportunities of young people. And as you’ve provided that educational opportunity you’ve every right to feel deeply frustrated at the regression in opportunities in the job market, and the utmost solidarity with the plight of young people facing reduced living standards and training at work.


Inevitably, there are no simple answers to a problem that emerges from a complex interaction of how labour markets interact with education, social security, and other aspects of life.


But we know for sure that austerity is failing young people, and that after all this – we’re going to have to say never again, again.



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