Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Oldies screw young in the labour market

If you're ever tempted to doubt that the world is run by older people who organise things to suit themselves and don't worry about any blowback on the young, consider how commonly employers resort to the practice of "natural attrition".

It's something businesses do when times are tough. They could lay off workers, but they choose a more considerate path: just stop hiring any new people, including replacing people who leave, and eventually get your numbers down to where you need them.

And all the oldies breathe a sigh of relief. Problem solved in the nicest possible way.

Except for one little thing: the oldies have just passed the buck to some unknown bunch of young people. What causes natural attrition to get quick results is the decision to abandon the annual intake of young people at the entry level.

For youngsters there's a form of bad luck that isn't widely recognised by those of us already ensconced in the workforce: to have the misfortune to be leaving school or university at a time when the economy has turned down and few employers are taking on recruits.

Kids complete their education bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, only to discover the world of work doesn't want them. It might take them a year, even 18 months, to get a proper, full-time job. That can be terribly dispiriting.

It's common at such times for young people to be caught in a trap where they can't get a job because they lack experience, but they lack experience because they can't get a job.

It's an appalling thing for the rising generation to get off on such a wrong foot. It can take years to recover, if you ever do.

At the time of the global financial crisis in late 2008 and 2009, we were all hugely relieved when, as it turned out, we escaped serious recession. The official rate of unemployment rose from 4 per cent to just 5.8 per cent before falling back.

We were all off the hook. Well, only the oldies. The truth is there was a sharp downturn and employers did react by going into natural-attrition mode, with some even moving briefly to four-day weeks.

Great. What few people noticed was that much of the burden of adjustment was shucked off on to that year's crop of education leavers. How much concern for their welfare? Not a lot.

We do hear a lot about the trouble some older people find in regaining employment should they lose their jobs. It's a genuine problem and one we should care about.

But the unemployment problems of the old seem to attract a lot more public attention – and sympathy – than the similar problems of the young.

Research by the Brotherhood of St Laurence using HILDA – the household income and labour dynamics in Australia survey – finds those aged 55 and over account for just 8 per cent of the unemployed, whereas those aged under 25 make up more than 40 per cent.

So unemployment is concentrated among the young. And, historically, the sad truth is it's concentrated among the less educated and less skilled.

In the modern technologically driven workforce, there are many fewer jobs for people who quit school early and for those who don't acquire post-school trade or tertiary qualifications. What unskilled jobs remain tend to be casual and occupied by university students or mothers.

In 2008, according to the Brotherhood's figures, 45 per cent of the unemployed had failed to complete year 12, with another 20 per cent having gone no further than year 12. That's almost two-thirds.

People with trade qualifications made up just 16 per cent of total unemployment, with those with university qualifications accounting for an unusually high 19 per cent.

In more recent years, unemployment has been rising slowly while, within that, the rate of unemployment among 15 to 24-year-olds has risen more rapidly. Among those teenagers who are either in jobs or actively seeking them, the rate of unemployment earlier this year was 20 per cent.

But now get this: by 2012, according to the HILDA survey, the proportion of the unemployed with uni qualifications had jumped to 25 per cent.

To me, that's easily explained: years of weak growth in the economy are leading many employers to engage in natural attrition, which is limiting job losses among established workers, but making it much harder for university leavers to find work.

Governments can't be blamed for the employment practices of businesses, but they can be held accountable for their punitive treatment of the young unemployed – even if they are reflecting the adult world's lack of sympathy for youthful job seekers. Oldies seem convinced that the young's only problem is that they don't want to work and so need to be starved back to the grindstone.

The dole has been allowed to fall way below the age pension so that it's now less than $260 a week for a single adult. The "youth allowance" is even lower. Now the ever-so-caring Abbott government wants to raise the age of adulthood from 21 to 25 and extend the non-adult waiting period from one week to four weeks.

And that's before we get on to the way successive governments' high immigration policy is allowing employers to neglect the training of young workers.

Why young voters cop this cruddy deal so meekly I don't know.