The Socialist 7 June 2007 |
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What's facing young people today?
A bright future... or different shades of grey
YOUNG PEOPLE today are more likely to be regarded by the government and the bosses' press as a threat and a nuisance, rather than the next generation that needs encouragement and development. John Sharpe and Jeff pelling explain their contrasting experiences as a young person in the 1960s and what it's like for those seeking a future in the 'new millennium'.
I STARTED part-time work in a supermarket in 2000, the summer I left secondary school. Little thought went into what job I would try and get as I was only looking to boost my pocket money. I was planning on starting sixth-form college in the autumn and then going on to university after that.
I ended up working every weekend throughout my two years at college. Despite never getting a lie-in for up to six weeks at a time, college was probably the most satisfying part of my life so far. Still living with my parents I had money for books, CDs, videos, nights out, holidays etc. The timetable was always full and I felt as though I was actually learning and making progress.
The only negative was when the government introduced its "key skills" courses in the second year, making us jump through hoops to gain a "key skill" in IT and maths to "show to our employer".
In the first year we thought we'd grown up, we chose our subjects and applied ourselves as much or as little as we liked. Now a series of compulsory courses were introduced with threats of disciplinary action if we did not attend.
These courses were hated. Instead of engaging teaching we spent every week literally working through a check list to demonstrate we could perform a basic set of tasks. My revenge was sitting cross-armed for the duration of the final exams and refusing to mark anything but my name on the exam sheet!
I left college with a respectable set of A levels in the arts. Like everyone else I knew, I planned on taking a "gap year" to save up and go travelling before heading off to Manchester University. With much of the same on offer work-wise I decided to just increase my hours at the supermarket and carry on there.
I liked the people I worked with but the drudgery of the job was almost indescribable. I worked on the cigarette kiosk. You would think that dealing with customers would make it more interesting and the time would fly by. But the stream of people just meant there was never any respite - there's only so many ways to ask for a pack of Peter Stuyvesants!
It always felt as if I had a split personality. At work I was always being told to "smile at the customers" and be friendly etc. After forcing that for nine hours a day I would have a manic half hour back at home before collapsing in a sulk and not wanting to talk to anyone at all! I knew this was only temporary so I managed to see it through.
At Manchester University I qualified for the maximum loan of £4,000 to live on and my local education authority loaned me £1,125 to pay my fees. I didn't quite qualify for any bursaries or grants. I was studying history and sociology and very quickly became very disillusioned. After the initial debauchery of freshers' week finance became a preoccupation, with rent for the halls swallowing up most of my loan.
I would seldom make it to the end of a term without a family member having to bung me some money. I resisted getting part-time work as I remembered how that had impacted on my studies at college. I shouldn't have worried! I had only six hours a week of lectures and seminars.
I'd always thought I'd be stretched at university, absorbed in my studies, exposed to cutting-edge ideas. Not really. Even when I did get it into my head to do some extra reading, the limited number of books in the library from our reading lists meant I often couldn't get hold of what I wanted.
My over-riding memory of Manchester University was spending futile hours in the cavernous library searching for books that weren't there and going home frustrated.
It was so bad I decided to quit after the first year and transfer to Sussex University in my home town. I hoped Sussex would be different. It wasn't and the experience was much the same.
The one lesson I did learn from Manchester was that I couldn't get by on the loans and would have to get part-time work. I started working weekends in a pub. Minimum wage and long hours. Again I liked the people I worked with. They were mainly Eastern Europeans - Poles and Slovakians.
After one particularly gruelling day I remember, we were all grabbing a quick five-minute breather sitting on our haunches in the dilapidated, un-carpeted corridor that was passing for a staff room.
Our Polish chef put on a silly voice and declared: "So this is the free West!" We laughed for a long while.
After joining a union with some of the other workers and attempting to get contracts, my casual hours dried up and I stopped working there.
I tried to get by on the loan but the money ran out quickly. With rent due I got an emergency loan of £100 from the university and ran to the one place I knew I could get a job fast - the supermarket I first started working in. I was back in my old job.
I carried on there part-time for the rest of my time at university. In the 18 months I'd been gone there had been a massive turnover of staff and the workforce was almost entirely different. I finished university owing the Student Loan Company over £16,000 and my bank £1,000.
Looking around at what my friends and old course-mates were doing there hasn't seemed any urgency to move on. So many people my age have degrees but the work they do seems only different in form, not in content, to the work I do in the supermarket.
They earn slightly more, but still below £20k in almost all cases. Here's some examples.
One of my former housemates has a psychology degree and works for the minimum wage as a care worker for the elderly. She traipses around the town making home visits. She has received little to no training and can work between 7am and 10pm at night.
You don't get paid between visits and there's no guarantee of full-time hours one week to the next. She had to move in with her boyfriend as the bills became more than she could handle with the uncertainty of her income.
My other housemate works in filing at the local hospital. He has a degree too. When I asked him about it he commented how "it's nothing strange, absolutely everyone where I work has a degree". He earns around £14k a year.
Most people I know have ended up doing admin jobs of one sort or another - often through agencies - and huge numbers of people seem to end up going through the doors (and out again) of the huge American Express offices in Brighton.
The lucky ones, from my point of view, have ended up working in the public sector - teachers or local government workers.
Many desirable jobs ask for "experience". However no one can seem to work out where you are supposed to get this "experience" if no one will give you a job to gain it. Catch 22! Another ex-housemate did find out - it involved doing voluntary work for charities and other voluntary organisations. What you were supposed to live on in the meantime is anyone's guess!
Out of everyone I know around my age, my brother is faring the best. After leaving school he pursued a Modern Apprenticeship NVQ, working for a carpentry company for £110 per week. He would spend four days in the workplace and the fifth in college.
The termly college fees of a few hundred pounds were paid jointly by the company and the government. He now does 'price-work' on a major building site hanging doors. He's been able lately to take home almost £1,000 per week. He jokes it's "because of all the time he put in at university".
Technically however he's self-employed, so from one day to the next he could be told not to bother coming in. This also means there's no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension scheme or anything else that an employer should provide.
When I spoke to him he joked about how they had to buy their own hard hats and no one enforced them wearing them. But when he turned up with his own 'hi-viz' jacket he was told to take it off and put on a company one because it had advertising on the back!
On a worksite of hundreds everyone is a 'self-employed sub-contractor' including the large Eastern European workforce.
A year after leaving university I'm still in the supermarket. Looking around at friends and family my age, there's been no urgency in leaving my supermarket job. The world of work just seems to be different shades of grey to me. It's almost funny - that supermarket job has accidentally become the most enduring feature of my life!
If someone had told me that back in August 2000 I'd still be there seven years later I wouldn't have believed it!
I spend the mornings working with a 67 year-old woman who can't afford to retire. She's been working there since 1976.
Back when she started, as she'll happily tell you, the place was a union 'closed shop'.
There was half-day closing on Saturday, we were closed on Sunday and bank holidays, holiday entitlement could mount up to seven weeks, reflecting length of service. Early morning workers received a free cooked breakfast and two shifts would take it in turn to dine together in a subsidised canteen.
She says that they worked hard but there was a great family atmosphere.
It's hard to imagine that now, with the revolving door of staff turnover, long opening hours seven days a week and reduced holiday entitlement.
There are big empty spaces where the canteen equipment used to be, as we sit on our lunch breaks undergoing security checks to make sure we didn't steal the sandwiches we're sitting eating.
There is a union that acts as an apologist for the company.
I plan on looking into teacher training in a year or so and becoming a history teacher. I'm hoping the benefit of the long summer holidays will offset the misery of student loan repayments and sky-high house prices.
Although I'll have to make sure I join the teachers' union immediately to help fight the government's attacks on public-sector pay and pensions!
Being a low-paid apprentice...
But with a skilled job at the end
RICH PEOPLE put their children down for the top schools as soon as they are born. If it had been possible my parents would have put me down for an apprenticeship as soon as I was born. My mother's preference was the Post Office (since split up into BT and Royal Mail) and it was drummed into me that I had to have a skill to get on or I would end up like them, either driving a bulldozer or working in the cardboard box factory.
I applied for three apprenticeships, the Post Office, BAC (now BAe) and Rolls-Royce aero engines (RR). The Rolls-Royce interview was first, I was offered a place and I accepted.
This was 1969 and one of Harold Wilson's 'white heat of new technology' policies was the industrial training levy. Every engineering employer paid a levy based on the number of employees and were given grants back based on the actual training the company carried out.
For large engineering companies like RR and BAC (whose sites were next to each other) this involved large sums of money and as a consequence, between them, they were able to build their own college: Rolls-Royce technical college.
My first day was an induction course. Filling out forms, listening to talks from the training manager, safety officer, college principle, the union convenor etc. Finally, all 200 of us queued up outside the main stores. We were measured up for boiler suits and each given a big box containing a complete set of hardback text books for the first year of college and a drawing board, tee square, compass set, set squares, pencils, paper etc. It was like Christmas!
My first year was spent in the Basic Training Workshop, next to the college. In here were 12 each of vertical millers, horizontal millers, centre lathes, capstan lathes, surface grinders, external grinders, internal grinders, pillar drills and shapers. There was a welding shop and fabrication, electrical and inspection sections. A medium-sized engineering outfit in its own right.
There was also an Olympus 301 engine (from the TSR2 that Harold had scrapped) and every week twelve 16 year-olds would strip it and rebuild it. The hydraulics shop had a fully working Britannia undercarriage (we weren't allowed to strip it though).
One week in four was in college either in class, their own drawing offices or in the fully equipped and staffed laboratories - metrology, metallurgy, electronic etc.
There were about 14,000 working at RR at that time and there were 1,000 apprentices/secretarial trainees/post-graduates of one form or another and that's not including BAC.
The second year we were let loose into the main factory on a grand tour. A week or two in the different machine shops, build shops, foundries, engine test, fabrication, heat treatment/plating, experimental.
As well as learning the trade, like all apprentices I also learnt how to behave in the workplace. During my stint in one of the machine shops I noticed that everyone queued up at the end of their section for the tea trolley. One day the trolley would come in from one side, the next day the other side.
The "who gets the hot bacon roll" question had been resolved.
Conspicuous in my apprentice overalls, I queued up every day at the section closest to where the trolley would appear. There were complaints, voices raised. One day the senior foreman escorted me, slowly, arm in arm, to the other side of the shop accompanied by cheers and shouts and the banging of mugs on benches. The same happened the following day. I was quite relieved when that week finished.
When I was 17, an old hand, I remember walking down our road one Saturday evening, on my way out on the town. I had ten Peter Stuyvesants (paper packet) in one pocket and a ten shilling note in the other. I was a Rolls Royce apprentice. Not a care, the world was mine!
The superb subsidised canteens (apprentice heaven) partially made up for the very low pay of an apprentice. The point was, as my parents had drummed into me, when I was 21 I would have a skill, a skilled job and be paid the skilled rate for a 37-hour week with five weeks paid holiday and a good pension scheme.
Isn't this what is supposed to happen?
- The immediate introduction of the trade unions' current minimum wage demands, as a step towards a minimum wage of £8 a hour.
- No exemptions to the minimum wage or lower rates for young people.
- For the right to a job, quality training or decent benefits.
- No university tuition fees. For a living grant for all students.
- No employment agencies that cream off huge percentages of workers' wages.
- The right of agency workers to have permanent contracts, a living wage and safe working conditions.
- A maximum 35 hour-week without loss of pay.
- A fighting and democratic trade union movement, involving agency workers, which campaigns to recruit presently unorganised workers.
International Socialist Resistance
INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST Resistance (ISR) is a socialist, campaigning organisation, run by and for young people. It fights for young people's rights across the globe.
ISR is campaigning in Britain and internationally against employers who are exploiting young workers in sweatshops, paying poverty wages and providing unsafe working conditions.
ISR initiated the idea of school and college strikes against the war on Iraq and helped to organise many of them.
ISR also campaigns against the destruction of the environment, the commercialisation and privatisation of our education, against racism and on many other issues.
ring 020 8558 7947 or write to: PO Box 858, London E11 1YG.