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If young people are the future, let’s pay attention

If we want young people to re-train, change direction, or even take risks, we need investment in their lives and the offer of greater protection, writes the University of Auckland's Alan France

In the recent TV debate What Next, John Campbell and Nigel Latta set out challenges for Aotearoa New Zealand in the future. By engaging a group of "futurists" (as they called them) they suggested this was a debate New Zealanders needed to have, along with a ‘Plan B’ that recognises change is inevitable and that politicians, businesses and individuals must embrace this opportunity.

What struck me in this debate was that young people were consistently referred to as key to this process. They were seen as "innovators", "visionaries", "creators" with the "passion" and "energy" to bring us into the new world. One of the major recommendations was about "realising the energy of youth" and giving them more control, of their own destiny and New Zealand’s future. There was much in this debate that made sense but I was left feeling that if this is right, and the mood for change is here, then why are our young people universally ignored by our policy makers?

I feel a growing hunger for change from the young. They are aggrieved about their treatment by the older generation and policy makers. If the UK election is a barometer of their mood then we might be seeing a new politics emerging. Traditionally, the young have always been the least likely to vote in general elections, but more than one million young people registered to vote a month before the UK election and numbers voting were at almost an all-time high. In an IPSOS Mori Poll, half of all 18 to 24 year olds voted with turnout increasing 16 points for 18 to 24 year olds and eight points for 25 to 34 year olds.

This surge (or youthquake as they called it) saw the young reject the politics of austerity led by the Conservatives and embrace Labour’s more welfarist programme. Voting patterns were disrupted and traditional class-based voting was replaced by age. The young needed to speak and express their unhappiness at being the ones paying the price.

In many ways they are right to be unhappy. We have seen disposable income of the over 65s increase by 4 percent and decline for the young by nearly 2 percent. The risk of poverty has shifted from the elderly to the young, who also had to pay for post-16 education while ‘baby boomers’ got it all for free.

As well, the politics of austerity have targeted the young. Social and economic policies across OECD countries have reduced their access to social benefits, increased their debts and done little to help them onto the housing market and so delayed independent living. On top of this, the ‘dependency culture’ discourse of this government and the focus on negatives have seen the young continually ‘blamed’ for society’s troubles. No wonder they are disaffected and troubled and expressing a range of worrying behaviours –18 to 24 year olds report mental health as a major issue and we have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world.

The neglect of youth policies was evident in the recent New Zealand budget. Only one policy directly offered help to our young and that was the increase of $20 to the accommodation benefit for students. There were general proposals that would offer something, for example raising tax thresholds, but there were negatives. Universities were only offered a 1 percent increase in tuition subsidy (below the expected 2.2 percent increase) which is likely to cost students more in fees to cover the shortfall. It is ironic, given that National raised the idea of delaying the age to access superannuation in April, the young will wait longer for their super while paying more towards the retirement of others. The Government was accused of pampering to baby boomers over the young and their denial was contradicted by budget changes which increased super in line with the Cost of Living Index.

"The risk of poverty has shifted from the elderly to the young, who also had to pay for post-16 education while ‘baby boomers’ got it all for free."

So what should governments be doing? It is clear that the context in which young people are trying to move forward is significantly challenging. What Next was right to say the future labour market will be different because of technology, but this is not new – the youth labour market has been changing radically over the last 30 years.

Young people now are more likely to be underemployed, not just unemployed, and youth wage remains at its lowest for over a decade. On top of this, most jobs being produced are temporary, part time, in many cases insecure, and in low skills areas such as hospitality and services. Young people, and especially our most vulnerable, remain unable to secure permanent and stable employment and the promise of ‘high tech’ or new forms of employment hasn’t been realised in the numbers needed.

Policies that target the ‘skills deficit’ are not enough – we need economic policies that create jobs in public services and in the new ‘green’ and creative industries. Government must invest, not just subsidise the private sector or provide training, but to create real jobs. We need social policies that manage ‘yo-yo transitions’ where young people are ‘in work’, ‘out of work’, ‘in training’ ‘out of training’ and back ‘into work’, as they try to find security and a ‘career’. We need a welfare support system that includes socially responsible employers and offers consistency, instead of insecurity and uncertainty, without blame or punishment.

The fact is, if we want young people to re-train, change direction, or even take risks, we need investment in their lives and the offer of greater protection.       

* Professor France is presenting What to do about our young people at The University of Auckland in Whangarei International Speaker Series on Wednesday July 5 at 6pm, the third of seven free public lectures in the series.

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