Jennifer Rayner is a 29 year old Labor Party staffer. Like many her age she is rightly frustrated about the diminishing opportunities afforded to young people. In ‘Generation Less’ Rayner attempts to outline the key issues facing young people and give some advice about the way forward. Her Labor Party politics however mean that the solutions she offers are extremely limited.
If you can get past the annoying, ‘trying to be cool with the kids’ writing style, the book does include useful facts and figures. Rayner notes that young people today are “the first generation in over 80 years to go backwards in work, wealth and wellbeing.”
She explains that in some places youth unemployment has hovered around 20 per cent. Even many of those in work desperately need more hours. The mining boom bypassed huge swathes of young people and the situation is getting worse.
“Where fewer than one in 30 young people said they were underemployed in the 1970s, the figure now stands at about one in six.”
Underemployment goes hand in hand with casualisation. Rayner uses ABS figures to show that the explosion of casual work over the past 25 years has been almost entirely concentrated in the under 24 workforce. Around 65 per cent of people working in hospitality and almost 40 per cent of retail workers are casuals without basic entitlements.
Young people are also underpaid. Wage inequality between age groups is rising. Weekly earnings over the past 25 years grew by just 25 per cent for under-25s but 59 per cent for people in their early 50s. (The cost-of-living grew by 80-90 per cent.)
This disparity is connected to deindustrialisation, the rise of low paid service sector jobs, and the ineffectiveness of the pro-Labor Party trade unions. Rayner inadvertently highlights the fact that Labor-led unions have failed to attract these super-exploited workers: in 1990 one in three people between 20 and 24 were members of a union, by 2013 this had fallen to one in ten.
While most young people are struggling with employment things are made even worse by high levels of housing stress. In recent decades wages have stagnated while property prices ballooned. Between 1990 and 2013, the median price of Sydney properties rose by 262 per cent!
“For the poorest young Australians, home ownership rates have crashed from 60 per cent to just 30 per cent over the past 15 years”. High rents mean that even those without a mortgage spend huge amounts of their income on housing. Others are forced to live with their parents, sometimes well into their 30s.
Rayner correctly points out that the property bubble has partly been inflated by government policies like negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount. While Labor is proposing minor changes now, these policies were historically supported by both major parties.
The Australian government spends about $30 billion a year in tax concessions linked to superannuation. “Almost 60 per cent of those concessions – some $18 billion a year – go to the top 20 per cent of income earners.”
While young people are asked to jump through hoops for modest welfare payments, this “rich people welfare” is almost enough to plug Australia’s current budgetary hole. Even Turnbull has been forced to close some of these loopholes in an attempt to seem ‘even handed’ as he heads into the election.
Despite paying taxes their whole life, workers are increasingly expected to be responsible for their own retirement. Casualisation and low pay however mean that young people cannot accumulate adequate superannuation. If current trends continue young people today will be retiring into abject poverty or working until they die. They will be much less likely to own a home, so will have next to no financial security.
Many young people are forced into debt in a way that previous generations were not. This is not only because of the high cost of housing and mortgage debt, but also the rising costs of higher education. If university fees are deregulated further, and regressive changes made to student loans, this problem will be magnified.
More and more young people are having to resort to credit cards as a stopgap for fluctuating incomes due to casualisation. It’s estimated that on average Australians under 25 roll over $2500 in credit card debt each month without paying it off!
On a number of economic fronts young people are under extreme pressure. This has huge impacts on mental health. Referring to an ABS survey Rayner says: “over 37 per cent of people under 24, and almost 30 per cent of people between 25 and 34, are white-knuckling through their days in moderate to extreme psychological distress”.
“The Department of Health reckons the prevalence of mental health issues like depression and anxiety may be up to three times higher among young Australians than across the community as a whole.” Rayner rightly draws connections between wellbeing, debt levels, and the lack of job and home security.
While ‘Generation Less’ gives an accurate picture of the issues young people face, Rayner falls well short on the way forward. She correctly notes that young people feel disconnected from the political process and feel they can’t effect change. She describes “a feeling that engagement in formal politics is pointless when the system seems incapable of delivering the right outcomes”.
Many don’t even bother to enrol to vote. It is estimated that over 493,000 people under 24 were missing from the electoral roll in 2013. Rayner says the “depth of that disengagement is revealed by the fact that only four in 10 Australians under 30 believe democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.”
It is likely that people assume ‘democracy’ to mean the current set up, dominated by two big business parties. While no alternative is outlined, it is clear that young people are increasingly open to other non-capitalist ways of running society.
But Rayner seeks to channel people’s anger and frustration back into safe channels, suggesting that a solution “starts with believing it’s possible to bring about change through the institutions we have in front of us. Contrary to what you often hear, they aren’t broken”.
The truth is these institutions, and the entire capitalist system, are broken. It’s a system that only works for the rich, and rather than the petty reforms Rayner proposes, a total restructure of society is required.
Some of Rayners proposals, like rent controls and voting from the age of 16, would be supported by socialists. But in the main her approach is to create a type of capitalism that makes it easier for young people to become bosses or climb the corporate ladder. In short, to get ahead at the expense of your peers.
Socialists strive to lift the living standards of all working class people, not at each other’s expense, but at the expense of those who exploit us and profit from our labour.
On exploitation in the workplace, Rayner attempts to throw sand in the eyes of the reader. She accepts that the unions have declined but covers over the political reasons for this, saying “…with such thin coverage on the ground, mobilising the people and resources for the fight has been near impossible.”
In the past unions were built from scratch. It is not an issue of lack of money or staff – unions today are more resourced than ever. Rayner promotes United Voice as a model, but this union has failed to make any real inroads organising young hospitality workers.
She champions their so-called “community organising” model. In reality this is not community organising at all, but a cover for replacing industrial action with impotent lobbying. One of the main reasons for growing inequality is that unions like United Voice have given up on wrestling a bigger share of wealth from employers and instead merely exist as appendages of the Labor Party.
The main weakness of the entire book is its Labor Party (read pro-capitalist) politics. Rayner sees capitalism as the only way to run society and therefore only proposes to tweak it around the edges.
She does not see the worsening conditions for young people in their proper historical context. Her premise is that capitalism is capable of providing for people if only the right policy settings can be struck. At best this is wishful thinking.
The post WW2 boom era which Rayner’s parents generation were born into was unique. Capitalism today can no longer afford the types of concessions that were afforded in that period. Instead the system is forced to squeeze more and more from working people. The privatisation of social services is but one example where capitalists are seeking to profiteer in all aspects of our lives. This, coupled with worsening working conditions and rising wealth inequality, is the new normal.
While a type of “intergenerational inequality” does exist, this is because young people are experiencing a harsher form of capitalism than their parents. To describe the problems as ‘intergenerational’ is a mischaracterisation and puts the blame in the wrong place. Put simply, we are facing sharpening class inequality and young people are at the pointy end of the stick.
While she tries to qualify her remarks in places it’s clear that Rayner is disgruntled towards a layer of older workers. In some cases she demands that they make concessions to give younger people a chance.
The truth is that there is more than enough wealth being created in society to cater for young and old alike. Unlocking the vast amounts of money horded by big business and the rich should be the goal, not different generations of workers fighting between themselves over the crumbs.
While ‘Generation Less’ shines a light on some of the problems faced by young people, those looking for a strategy capable of turning the situation around will have to look elsewhere. Solutions to the major issues surrounding work, wealth and wellbeing will not be found within the confines of a system that prioritises profits above all else. In time, capitalism itself will show young people that socialist solutions are the only way forward.
By Anthony Main
Generation Less: How Australia is cheating the young
By Jennifer Rayner
Redback Quarterly 9, April 2016
Black Inc. Books, RRP $22.99