Ronan Burtenshaw examines the State of the Nation for Ireland’s youth. From internships to precarious employment, what is the reality behind the figures?
Young people in the West increasingly find themselves with worse standards of living and career prospects than their parents. But is there really a crisis of young people here and abroad? And, if so, why?
Unite economist Michael Taft puts it strongly, “don’t be under any illusions. There is an economic war being waged against young people. It is being fought on a number of fronts: education, social protection, labour market… Young people are no longer being raised to be the subjects of tomorrow. Today, they are being turned into mere objects.”
Unemployment for young people in Ireland has consistently hovered around 30% since the crash. Our PIIGS comrades are in even worse state. But better-performing OECD states like the UK and Sweden also have crisis-level unemployment for young people. For a variety of reasons youth unemployment tends to be higher than the rest – but not on this scale. In the 1960s the US and Canada were the only OECD economies to have youth unemployment over 10 percent. Now all but two are in double-figures, with most well into the 20s.
When young people find work it’s likely to be poorly paid, insecure and unprotected. Unsurprisingly, Ireland is a market leader in this field. 25% of the workforce is in part-time employment, around half involuntarily, with 135,000 people classified as underemployed. That’s the highest number in the EU. A survey by Mandate trade union into their members in the bar and retail sector found that less than one-third had full-time contracts, half had their hours changed at least once a month and 60% were seeking additional hours they could not get.
A rare foray of research into zero-hour contracts in Ireland this year discovered that 90% of McDonald’s workers work with no guarantee of hours and can be sent home at a moment’s notice with minimal pay. Domino’s Pizza and Burger King were similarly atrocious. And one in five of those in work in Ireland are poor.
Then there’s internships, figures for which are hard to come by. But, as an indicator, the number of people in state-run ‘labour activation’ schemes, such as JobBridge, has nearly doubled in four years – from 45,000 to 86,000. A JobBridge intern working an average week of 40 hours makes €3.75 per hour, less than half the standard minimum wage of €8.65. And the intern economy is massively expanding in the US, where we should be looking for trends. In 1992 17% of college graduates took on an internship. By 2008 that number was 50%.
Across the OECD the benefits young people receive from the state have also been under attack. What we’ve seen in Ireland – such as a 1,579% increase in university fees between 1995 and 2015, specific cuts of between €2-4,000 per year from young people’s dole as well as general cuts to things that disproportionately affect young people like rent allowance, tax rebates and single parents benefits – are repeated across the West.
Shane Fitzgerald of youth campaign group We’re Not Leaving argues that we’re seeing young workers used by capital to resolve the crisis. “To escape the crisis it must build a new precarious workforce with less pay, less rights and less security than the generations that have gone before. This is the disciplining we see in mass youth unemployment, age-specific welfare cuts, internship culture and jobbridge.” But, if this is the role young people are serving, what is its future?
One possibility is that young people are seeing a glimpse of what is to come for workers in general. But this presents a big problem for capitalism. Western economies are suffering a chronic lack of domestic demand. If these conditions are repeated for the working population as a whole there might not be enough money around the place to soak up what is produced.
Another possibility, trends continuing, is that the young precariat is to be made a labour pool of exception. An indigenous supply of cheap labour to help western economies compete with those in, say, southeast Asia. If this pans out we can expect to see an increase in young workers being targeted specifically – written out of protections and guarantees, subject to different requirements and paid less than older workers for the same jobs.
The picture isn’t pretty. But the reasons for it are not hard to understand. The young are being hit because they’re soft targets. Not organised, not active. Less interested in politics, less likely to vote. More likely to take it on the chin or just up sticks and emigrate.
Maybe somewhere between dole queues, fee hikes and internships a penny will drop. There’s a price to pay for not giving a shit.