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The Best Years of Our Lives?

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January is grim. It's wet, cold and worlds away from the spring. It is also host to the most miserable day of the year - the day when the Christmas bills hit the mat.

Aptly it is also when StepChange's Debt Awareness Week takes place. For a nation staggering around under £1.4trillion in personal debt it's an opportunity to assess our out-of-whack finances, which politicians shouldn't squander.

However, lots of the young people I speak to don't need reminding of the issue of debt. For many of them, debt awareness week is a monthly occurrence - it's the last week in the month before pay day, the time the money runs out (Wonga Week, as my union has termed it).

I work in a Liverpool banking call centre. I am also a Unite workplace rep. The young people I represent - both in and out of work - are really struggling as a result of the downturn and the seemingly never-ending austerity drive.

We're being forced to carry the can for the way the City speculators gambled, and ultimately, failed our economy. Working in a banking call centre I know all too well that low paid bank workers are not the ones to blame for this mess, yet my generation is the first since the war that can expect to be worse off than our parents.

The first hit was the scrapping of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), driving many of us out of school and onto the dole. Those who make it to university are faced with at least £27,000 debt racked up in tuition fees alone - sorry, but eating and renting will cost you more.

Like many other working class young people, for me a university degree was the promise of doors opening to an exciting career. Nobody said that the key to the door would cost £30k.

Regardless of chancellor Osborne's claims about the economy, too many students are experiencing the reality of the 'recovery' either joining the one million-long queue of young people looking for work or stacking shelves as workfare free labour. The situation is even worse for those leaving school at 16 or 18 chasing those rare apprenticeships. That is why Unite young members desperately wanted the government to back Andrew Gwynne's Bill that would have ensured that when our tax cash is being spent on contracts like new schools, homes or hospitals, then decent apprenticeships would be created for young workers. No such luck though - ministers killed the bill.

Even for those who do manage to find a job, the nature of work for young people is all too often insecure, short term and poorly paid. It's the under 30s who have been most exposed to the zero-hours employment culture; recent research found that the number of young people on a zero hours contract has doubled since the start of the downturn.

In short, Britain 2014 has too few opportunities for its young workers to earn a decent living. Wages are low, work is insecure and the overheads are punishing. Whether it is landlords, energy companies or the train firms, the cost of living is swamping young people. In the face of living costs leaping by 25% in five years, wages - particularly for the low paid - have been virtually frozen.

The average under 25-year-old who contacts StepChange has unsecured debt of £5,471. Small wonder growing numbers are falling into the clutches of parasitic payday lenders. In 2012, 42% of the charity's young clients had taken out a payday loan, rocketing up from 25% in 2011.

Some say that the reason young people are treated so poorly by governments is that they don't vote. A report on political inequality from the IPPR in November showed that in the 2010 general election just 44% of 18-24 year olds voted, whereas 76% of the aged 65 took the time to fill out their ballot forms. The problem is getting worse over time - in 1970 there was an 18% gap in turnout between under 25s and the over 65s; by 2010, this had grown to 32%.

But I don't consider this proof that young people aren't interested in political action - they're just fed up of the miserable offer they are served up by the political establishment.

When I started organising for Unite in my call centre we had just five union members; after 18 months of effective organising this grew to 270 Unite members. Some 180 are under 30, with the youngest member just 17. Eight in 10 of my colleagues, I am proud to say, are Unite members. This has given our members a real voice in the workplace, reduced staff turnover and improved conditions.

One of the main reasons members initially joined was to secure vital protections that only a strong union can provide. However, they are also finding union membership fills a political hole in their life. By helping to improve their world of work, we encourage young workers believe that change is worth striving for.

We've been called the Lost Generation or Generation Jobless. But not by me or anybody I know.

The truth is young people are just as interested in a decent job, access to education, a home and a fairer Britain as anybody else. We're told that the way to get on in life is be a homeowner, buy stuff for the house and save for a pension, yet we're so loaded up with debt at the outset that this is nothing but a distant mirage. What kind of economic model prevents its new consumers emerging because they are lost under a debt mountain? Not a very clever one I'd argue.

So this week, Unite young members are saying to young people mired in debt `you deserve better'. Politicians may lack ambition for us, but that doesn't mean that we lack ambition for ourselves. With millions of young people coming onto the electoral roll between 2010 and 2015, whoever speaks to us and for us could hold the balance at the next election.

So, Establishment, you are on notice - you'd better start to listen, because our time is coming.

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