Generation of the Damned

It’s a truism of the twenty-first century that the young are expected to work for free. We had unpaid internships. We had internship auctions. Now, campaigner Michael Ezra reports on firms that charge people by the day to work for them – sometimes as much as £65 per shift. Michael quotes Ben Lyons from the Intern Aware pressure group: ‘We campaign hard against unpaid internships because they exclude the vast majority of young people who cannot afford to work for free. There is something even more perverse about expecting young people to have to pay to work.’

There is no capitalist argument for internships. If you can’t pay your staff you can’t afford to run a business. Simple as. But companies employ indentured labour and the government does not a thing to stop them. I recall a policy paper that tried to reconcile the internship market with national minimum wage law. The conclusion the paper drew was something like ‘It just is.’

Maybe it’s no surprise that the government will not investigate a situation that is, at best, of dubious legality. Its own workfare programmes shunt young people onto placements at Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, Poundland and other retail giants. A geology graduate told the Guardian that ‘It seems we’re being used as some free labour, especially in the runup to Christmas.’ Claimants said they had to work thirty hours a week and be available for eleven hours a day with the threat of JSA cutoff for noncompliance. The reality doesn’t match DWP rhetoric of sustainable employment and unlocking individual potential.

And by the way, it’s not as if young people are too high minded to stack shelves. A big store opened up near me. They advertised a few hundred entry level positions and got thousands of applications. Retail is low-skill, high-pressure and dead end. Advancement is minimal, and the entire sector is under threat from online shopping. But thanks to the government, Primark will be able to prop itself up with a widening flow of unrenumerated labour from the growing unemployment lines. Researching this for a report tasked in my own job, I even found cases where claimants were barred from pursuing actual professional job opportunities because workfare providers wanted them to stick with their placements and fill the provider’s quota. It is a forced internship scheme that compels people who don’t want to work in retail to take positions that could have gone to people who actually do want to work in retail. Maybe that’s what Gideon meant when he talked about a private sector led recovery.

The jilted generation is a political catchphrase now, and there’s a danger in campaigners’ focus on internships. Concerns about youth unemployment are beginning to be seen as the whining of upper middle class graduates looking for an easy route into the creative world. ‘Being unemployed with four kids and a mortgage is worse than being nineteen and sitting on your bum at mum’s,’ I was told, after raising this on Twitter.

But to dismiss these issues as the hipster liberalism of Shiv Malik and Laurie Penny ignores the rise in youth homelessness. Crackdown on welfare hits the working class hardest. Already frozen out of a galloping rental market, and denied disposable income, autonomy and independence, people in their twenties are being thrown out of family homes simply because their families can’t afford to keep them. This is apparently happening at the rate of 400 new homeless cases a day. People are turned away from shelters overwhelmed with demand.

A few months ago someone in public life suggested that wealthy elderly people should ‘downsize’ – move to smaller homes to free up room for people who can’t afford big houses. The idea was shouted down in pious outrage. It is a measure of how bad the housing crisis has got that such a thing was suggested at all. Kick people out of their homes?

Yet with poor people under thirty-five, that’s exactly what we’re doing. The decisive policy change is the expansion in the shared accommodation rate, which will hit one-bedroomed flats for single people under 35. Housing benefit is one of those for-want-of-a-nail payments that is not well thought of but does a great deal to keep society sane. Currently it covers small, supported flats for young, vulnerable adults, some with mental health issues, others just out of prison. The government wants to slash this so that these people have to rent rooms in shared houses. Except 70% of local authorities don’t have the HMO scene of cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. Come January we will release around 80,000 people on a market that has no idea what to do with them.

There has been yet more fuss about public sector pensions. The November 30 strike was worth supporting purely because of the rise in contributions, which will place yet another expense on Britain’s low paid. In a cruel touch, the contributions go straight to the Treasury, coins flung into the ocean of a deficit most public sector workers played no part in creating.

But there was far too much tubthumping about the indefensible final salary schemes. Headteachers and radiographers marched, in effect, to demand that young people should work overtime in call centres so that the headteachers and radiographers could perfect their drives. If you are under forty, and work in a private sector entry level role, the unions have nothing to say to you.

Unlike Vernon Kay, I can’t claim to be the voice of youth. Having turned thirty a couple of weeks ago, I wonder now how it feels for people born in 1990 who will now be coming up to twenty-one. If they managed to get to university, then the best option may be to emigrate to a country that actually values talent and hard work. We could see an Eire-style exodus, with those too poor, stupid or fucked up to get out having to work themselves into the ground to prop up what sociologist Danny Dorling called a ‘dictatorship of the old’ (which would then collapse because of the reduced income tax stream required to cover pensions and green fees).

Of course it’s unwise to divide people along generational lines. And the coalition slogan has some truth in it, we are all in this together and there will have to be sacrifices. I just think that for once the sacrifices could be made by the old and rich rather than the young and poor.

Update: There are more and more unemployment experience blogs out there as the recession deepens. This one, by my friend Red Newsom, is well worth your time.

Further update: The Poundland geology graduate quoted above is now seeking a judicial review.


One Response to “Generation of the Damned”

  1. cherryhamiltonbond Says:

    I remember reading a magazine feature on how the creative staff at various cool companies got their jobs. It turned out most of them had done unpaid internships for about a year. Who can afford to do that but the very richest? It’s a sure way to increase the gap between rich and poor.

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