We learnt this week that from October, the National Minimum Working wage will be raised by 20p, to £6.70.
To most people this is good news, but regular critics will point out that the British minimum wage lags far behind neighbouring Ireland and France, that it isn’t keeping up with inflation, or that it’s even further behind the living wage. But despite mentioning it, no column inches will be dedicated to the fact that 16-20 year olds are paid less.
This ‘tiered’ system was introduced with the NMW Act in 1998, on the basis that being less expensive for employers would leverage youth unemployment. This small part of the Act passed through Parliament and into action with little-to-no opposition, but now we face a problem: it didn’t work. Youth unemployment is at an all time high, and young people are considerably out of pocket, and undervalued by the current system.
Although we make up 6% of the population, 16-20 year olds are in a strange legal limbo. From the age of 16 you can live alone, have sex, marry, pay taxes, and join the Army. By 18 you can drink, gamble, and claim Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support. This is where, in theory, the state looks after you, helping you to find a job and get on your own two feet – but even at 18, you still face two years being denied a fair minimum wage.
This is two years where, for many people, things go irreparably wrong – and it is a time at which a wrong turn can take someone far away from where they need to be in life. According to Depaul UK, 80,000 young people experience homelessness every year.
Youth poverty in the UK is inexcusably high: we have the highest rate of under-17 year olds living in the poorest homes in the country, and according to an OECD report on child welfare, the United Kingdom came behind almost every European and Western Nation. This puts young people in a huge amount of risk: those living in poverty are twice as likely to be depressed, and suffer a subsequent lack of personal growth.
Under the new plans, the differences between ages may seem minimal: 18-20 year olds get £1.40 less than the minimum, and 16-17 year olds get £2.83 less. But when you try to support yourself on this, the disparity makes itself clear: adults working a 40-hour week on minimum wage will earn £268. For 18-20 year olds this drops to £212, and for 16-17 year olds, it’s a dismal £154.80. These salaries will get you a small rental outside of London, and you will be able to support yourself as long as you don’t require food, water, or heating, and as long as you don’t mind visits from the bailiffs once your council tax is due.
If we are to tell children that they can grow to achieve what they want in life, we need an infrastructure that supports this. It may seem strange to suppose that someone straight out of school would want to work full time, but I do not believe that it should be a question of ‘would they,’ but ‘can they.’
Apprenticeship schemes offered a seemingly feasible stepping stone, wherein people are paid less on the basis that they will receive training – £3.30 under the new rules. But for most people, this seems like an unfair trade – almost a quarter of people in these schemes drop out, and it’s unsurprising: an apprenticeship is only as good as the job you get at the end, and more often than not these are minimum wage as well. Why waste a few years getting pushed around by often unhelpful employers when you can get a better salary sooner?
Furthermore, the promise of a bright future in a trade is a hard argument for a generation of people whose first experience of an economy was one in recession. In the face of these dim economic prospects, a record number of young people are living with their parents, concerned for their slim chance of survival outside of the family home.
When an economic downturn comes, it is not the people with careers that are sacrificed for the sake of a new generation. This is not an idea that sits well in the hands of an austerity-mad leadership, but it would provide a sharper steer in the right direction if people were to realise that young people genuinely need a hand.
For us, saying that someone works minimum wage is not the playground insult that it once was – now, a normal minimum wage is something to be desired.