I’ve been looking at the issue of youth employment lately, and it has reminded me of my first job experiences. On the word of a friend of a friend, without a hint of an interview, I spent a number of summers working at the local Arnott’s factory where I became adept at packing Chocolate Royals. Then after finishing high school, and with my sights set on studying in the US, I effortlessly got a job as an accounts clerk with Heinz, a job that tided me over for nearly a year until I left to go to university.
For my generation that’s not such an unusual story.
However, the employment trajectory for young people has changed considerably since the immediate post-war years, when young people could move into employment straight from school, young men into low-level business positions or apprenticeships, and young women into secretarial, nursing or jobs in manufacturing.
By the early 1980s around 550,000 teenagers were in full-time employment, but by 2012 that number had dropped to less than 200,000.
Much of the decrease can be explained by a greater number remaining at school or participating in post-school training, but there is a big proportion also doing involuntary part-time work.
According to the COAG Reform Council, since 2008 the proportion of people of working age with higher level qualifications has increased markedly, with the exception of 20-24 year olds.
So, in an economy that puts a premium on the acquisition of high-level knowledge and skills, there are question marks about the future of young people who do not see higher education as a realistic or an attractive option.
Recovery from the GFC
Associate Professor Lucas Walsh from Monash University notes that in an economy still in recovery from the global financial crisis of 2008, young people have experienced greater job losses than older workers, with apprenticeships being the first hit.
He lists four features of a disproportionate impact on younger people:
One is that full-time opportunities have decreased markedly, 22% since the 1980s.
The second is that the working lives of young people are less stable, with three times as many teenagers and twice as many young adults in part-time work compared to the 1980s.
The third is that young people change employment more regularly, with one in five teenagers changing jobs each month compared with one in 10 older workers.
And finally, many young people experience long-term unemployment, with 25% of the long term unemployed aged 15-24, and since 2008 the percentage has almost doubled of that age group without a job for more than a year.
In September 2012 the youth unemployment rate in Australia remained more than twice that of the general community at 12 per cent.
These statistics do not paint a pretty picture.
Speaking to the ABC, CommSec’s chief economist Craig James said a concerning feature has been a drop-off in the proportion of students in school doing part-time work. He said only 54.2 per cent of 15-19-year-olds had a job or were looking for one last September, with the proportion of school students looking for work at a 13-year low at just over 38 per cent.
“Back in my day (showing my age), plenty of kids between 15 and 19 years of age had part time jobs at supermarkets, food stores or other retailers.
“Are young people still interested in taking on part-time positions, or is the problem with labour or tax laws? If families are indeed doing it tough you would assume there would be more students with part-time jobs to get some added pocket money.”
An ageing population
Craig James also made the point that an ageing population makes it imperative that young people be encouraged to enter the labour market.
There has been increasing education participation and the evidence supports the benefits of completing Year 12. Levels of school retention are high at nearly 80% and university-level attainment among 24-35 year olds has increased from 24% to 35% in the ten years between 2001 and 2011.
Yet unemployment for young people in the labour market in the age group 15-19 is three times higher than for Australian adults.
These trends are not limited to Australian as indicated in a report in The Guardian last year. It paints a grim picture for the prospects of Europe’s youth, with 5.5 million 15-19 year olds without a job and youth unemployment having soared 50% since 2008. Three out of ten people losing their jobs are under the age of 24, despite the young representing only a tenth of the labour force.
Compared with youth unemployment in Greece (53%) and Spain (55%), Australia is fortunate to have been shielded from the worst of the 2008 economic crisis that still impacts heavily on the United States and many countries in Europe.
According to one EU report, “the increase in the long-term unemployment rate for young people during the crisis was more noticeable than for other age groups … and may soon intensify the long-term unemployment issue and have serious social consequences.”
A summit of EU leaders in June last year debated how to tackle Europe’s worsening unemployment levels. But the leaders’ hands are tied by the savage spending cuts of debt-reduction programs.
If we want our nation to prosper in the future, we must find ways to build the workforce skills of our young people. That is a responsibility of government, of course, but it is also a responsibility that we all share.