Why Is Age Discrimination Still Acceptable in Modern Britain?

01/05/2016 22:45

My generation is caught in a vicious circle. For the most part, we are disillusioned with a political system that constantly lets us down, but of course when that disillusionment unsurprisingly translates in to less engagement, it gives the system free license to neglect or even actively discriminate against us all the more. Too often the focus is on an 'apathetic' youth, with little care being taken to examine the systemic ways in which we are disenfranchised from a society that is increasingly run in the interests of a few.

Austerity under the Conservatives has been a textbook example of this. It is the young, the black and the poor that have suffered the most from the implemented cuts, demographics that just happen to be those least represented at the ballot box. Youth services have been cut to the tune of £259 million since 2010, translating to a loss of 2,000 youth workers and the closure of 350 youth centres and children's charities too have seen a disproportional reduction in their funding. Cuts have been made to EMA, disabled students' allowances, further education colleges and maintenance grants. Worst of all, mental health spending for young people has been slashed at a time when demand is skyrocketing.

It is where we are ignored as well as when we are directly attacked that highlights the politics of disenfranchisement too. Osborne's 'living wage' farce has been the focus of ire from many camps, but the most damaging criticism of it concerns those it does not apply to- the under 25's. Why, exactly, does George feel I, as a 23-year-old, am any less deserving of a better wage than someone 18 months older than me? Why, for that matter, have we seen it fit to pay 16-year olds less money for the same work for years?

If it's because the older person will have more experience or education, surely if that's actually relevant to the job that should be part of the person specification? In this situation age-differentials wouldn't be needed because you'd be weeding out anyone unsuitable for the job, no matter how old they are. If this isn't what we're doing then we're either allowing 16-year-olds to do the work (but paying them less) when they are not adequately skilled or qualified to do so and therefore comprising on quality and/or safety, or the extra experience and/or education isn't really relevant, in which case we're simply using it as a smokescreen to be able to hire unreasonably cheap labour. Age as a measure of competence is at best an indirect measure of experience and knowledge, themselves indirect measures of the ability to do a given job- hardly a morally or economically sound way to run a business. Even the official explanation of the government, that higher wages for young people leads to higher youth unemployment (used as an argument against higher wages in general, not to mention against allowing women into the workforce and introducing a minimum wage), stands on shaky theoretical (and empirical) ground.

Another argument troops out is that lower wages for younger people encourages them to stay in education which helps their earning power in later life- give them points for the sheer audacity it takes just to write that down. Thanks to tripled tuition fees and the slow erosion of public funding of universities not only have the government successfully transferred a gigantic amount of debt onto those unable to pay it, but they've introduced vicious market forces on a sector wholly unsuited to such a culture. We're paying more to be able go to university than any other generation at a time when academia is being radically undermined. Are we really meant to accept this benevolent paternalism, whose actual result is that you end up earning less both when you're 17 and 27, thanks to discriminatory wage differentials and an insane educational debt burden? The immorality of such a design is matched only by the idiocy.

Of course, the youngest workers are limited in what they can do about it, even if they wanted to, because we don't let them vote. Despite considerable campaigning, 16 and 17-year-olds are still denied suffrage- yet no one seems to be able to explain why we are denying a democratic right that is at the heart of our society to 1.5million citizens. Surely the assumption should be that everyone has a right to vote, unless an incredibly good reason can be suggested for why they shouldn't? Yet when the notion was dismissed for the EU referendum, all that was said was that we shouldn't depart from the 'tried and tested Westminster model'. I'm not sure what they've been testing exactly, but its clear something isn't working.

A three-year -ld shouldn't be able to vote because they simply don't have the cognitive abilities to understand simple economic concepts, and would struggle with any moral arguments much more nuanced than 'Mummy said so'. I've yet to see any evidence, however, of how a 16-year-old differs substantially from an 18-year-old, on any developmental index. 16 is the age when we allow individuals a range of choices- to join the army, to get married, to leave school... Why not the vote? If we don't have an airtight reason (and we don't) what right have we to deny them the vote? Tradition and complacency are shackles, not reasons.

Imagine if someone was paid less or refused the right to vote because of their religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation and nothing else. Why is age any more of an acceptable reason for discrimination and unfair treatment? We face a more insecure future than our parents because we're an easy target- Cameron and his cabinet have had to push through cuts to feed the needs of an ironically bankrupt ideology, so they have chosen to focus them where there will be the least political fallout for them, brewing up a lethal cocktail of disillusionment and neglect that society will reap further down the line. This is then compounded by discrimination in the jobs market and a jealously guarded suffrage system that excludes those it also betrays.

Young people have an awful lot to offer the world, yet society continually mistreats and demoralises them, and then complains when they act up or refuse to engage. The saying goes that the best place to intervene in a vicious circle is everywhere - part of that everywhere has to be fairer treatment of and placing trust in our younger generations. Not to is a betrayal of everything our society is supposed to stand for.