Time to fight back against the war on young people

Declining living conditions, exorbitant university fees, the demonisation of welfare recipients and skyrocketing rental and property prices amount to a war on young people.

This is not the result of a feud between baby boomers and millennials, it is a concerted attack by successive governments and Australian bosses to rip up social welfare and allow more money to flow to the top.

Since the abolition of free education in 1987, students have suffered as fees soar and the quality of education deteriorates. For 30 years, governments have launched a series of attacks resulting in ballooning student debt, the net value of which currently stands at $42.3 billion.

Socialism Sydney

In 1996, university students paid $2,454 for a year of full time study. Today students are paying as much as $10,596 per year. But Liberal politicians are still not satisfied – despite most of them having received their degrees for free.

The Coalition has attempted to let the free market rip by deregulating fees, never mind the $100k price tag this would create for students. After a series of student protests defeated that neoliberal dream, education minister Simon Birmingham has returned with a proposal to increase the financial contribution that students pay for their degree, and lower the HECS repayment threshold. This is in addition to a more than 10 percent reduction in Commonwealth funding per student since the late 1990s.

Unfortunately, the solution to the dire state of higher education is not simply getting the Liberals out of government. It has been a priority of both major parties – in line with the desire of the Business Council of Australia – to tail the US education system.

Previous Labor governments paved the way for the Liberals current attacks. The Hawke government scrapped free education and the Gillard government proposed a huge $2.3 billion in funding cuts. Gillard also uncapped the amount of places each university could offer without increasing funding – a situation that led to the push for total fee deregulation.

But it’s not just university students who are beginning their adult lives weighed down with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. Substantial cuts to TAFE funding in recent years have resulted in fees rising by as much as 400 percent. In 2015, enrolments in vocational education and training declined by 200,000, which was accompanied by thousands of staff cuts across the country.

Thirty years ago, most working class people received on the job training; today they increasingly have to get certificates, diplomas and degrees, and undertake compulsory unpaid internships before getting a foot in the door. Apprentices survive on poverty wages and are now also unable to escape the burden of student debt.

For young people, a degree is by no means a guarantee of a job. The full time employment rate for graduates currently stands at 68 percent, and graduate starting salaries are just 74 percent of the average weekly income. While there is a correlation between higher education and higher average incomes, the idea that all graduates have gold flowing from their pockets is a fantasy concocted by those attempting to justify fee increases.

The jobs market is worse for other young workers. A report by the Brotherhood of St Laurence released earlier this year found that almost one-third of young people are either unemployed or underemployed – the highest rate in 40 years. Former treasurer Joe Hockey’s advice to young people to simply go “get a good job that pays good money” rings pretty hollow in a situation where there is only one job available for every 17 people looking for work.

Youth employment is increasingly precarious, casualised and underpaid. From the start of July, young workers in the retail, hospitality and fast food industries experienced the biggest pay cut since the Great Depression as cuts to weekend penalty rates were implemented nationally.

Here again the culprit for this attack on young people is not solely the Liberal party, it was the ALP-established Fair Work Commission that determined a slight boost in the wages of some of the most underpaid workers is no longer “fair”.

These problems are exacerbated by the low levels of youth unionisation. Only 7 percent of young workers are union members, a historically low figure. The relentless class war waged from above that has led to the conditions facing young people today can only be countered by a fight from our side – low union density is a serious impediment to that.

Access to the basic necessities is becoming increasingly difficult for those left on the scrapheap of unemployment. Contrary to the conservative trope about young people living the high life on taxpayer-funded handouts, welfare payments now leave recipients living well below the poverty line.

Centrelink payments have not increased in real terms since the 1990s. Weekly payments are currently $218.75 for students and $267.80 for those out of work and not studying. It’s hard to imagine how anyone manages to cover rent, food, bills and transport on that paltry sum.

Accessing Centrelink gets more difficult by the year. Work for the dole, modern day slave labour, and months-long waiting periods are now the norm – and in 2017 the government began forcing people to repay fake debts and is set to introduce mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients. Anyone who has waded through the Centrelink bureaucracy in recent years knows that recipients are treated like criminals for simply trying to survive in the context of a 12.7 percent youth unemployment rate.

If that doesn’t already sound bad enough, the housing bubble has locked all but the wealthiest young people out of the housing market. Thirty years ago, home ownership was a realistic dream for most – but in Melbourne and Sydney it now looks more like a pipe dream.

Young people today are forced into a rental market with outrageously inflated prices. Less than 3 percent of rental housing nationally is considered affordable to someone earning the minimum wage. As the wealthy profit from their multiple investment properties, renters are packing into overcrowded share houses that still cost more than half a week’s wage. No wonder so many more people are staying at home well into their twenties – leaving is not an option.

This is the economic situation we are left with after 30 years of neoliberal attacks. It is going to take a serious fightback to regain the ground won by the worker and student struggles of the 60s and 70s.