With Youth Unemployment At An All-Time High, Why Aren't 16-20's Paid The Minimum Wage?

Why Aren't 16-20 Year Olds Paid The Minimum Wage?

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When Halloween rolls around later this year it won’t only be the dead that are rising: we’re set to see the minimum wage go up to £6.70.

On first glance this is good news all around: regular critics will point out that even the increased British minimum wage lags far behind neighbouring Ireland and France, that it isn’t keeping up with inflation, or that it’s even further behind the living wage, but for the majority of people this rise is a sign that everything is tickety-boo economically.

But for many 16 to 20 year olds, the minimum wage is a bit of a bad joke - because they aren’t required to be paid it.

This ‘tiered’ system was introduced with the National Minimum Wage Act in 1998, on the basis that making less experienced workers less expensive for employers would be an easy way to leverage youth unemployment. This small part of the Act passed through Parliament and into action with zero opposition, but now we face a problem: it didn’t work.

Youth unemployment is at an all time high, young people are considerably out of pocket, and - despite all odds - many under 21s are trying to fend for themselves.

Making up 6% of the population, 16-20 year olds find themselves in a strange legal limbo: aged 16 you can live alone, have sex, marry, pay taxes, and join the Army. By 18 you can drink, gamble, and claim Jobseeker’s and Income Support.

This is where, in theory, the state looks after you, helping you to find a job and get on your own two feet – but even at 18, you still face two years being denied a fair minimum wage.

This is two years where, for many people, things go irreparably wrong – and it is a time at which a wrong turn can take someone far away from where they need to be in life.

According to Depaul UK, 80,000 young people experience homelessness every year, with youth poverty overall being inexcusably high: we have the highest rate of under-17 year olds living in the poorest homes in the country, and according to an OECD report on child welfare, the United Kingdom came behind almost every European and Western Nation. This puts young people in a huge amount of risk. Those living in poverty are twice as likely to be depressed, and suffer a subsequent lack of personal growth.

Under the new plans, the differences between ages may seem minimal: 18-20 year olds get £1.40 less than the minimum, and 16-17 year olds get £2.83 less. But when you try to support yourself on this, the disparity makes itself clear: adults working a 40-hour week on minimum wage will earn £268. For 18-20 year olds this drops to £212, and for 16-17 year olds, it’s a dismal £154.80.

These salaries will get you a small rental outside of London, and as long as you don’t require food, water, or heating, and as long as you don’t mind visits from the bailiffs once your council tax is due, you’ll be able to support yourself just fine.

Apprenticeship schemes offered a seemingly feasible stepping stone, wherein people are paid less on the basis that they will receive training – £3.30 under the new rules. But for most people, this seems like an unfair trade – almost a quarter of people in these schemes drop out, and it’s unsurprising: an apprenticeship is only as good as the job you get at the end, and more often than not these are minimum wage as well, provided the employer in question doesn’t pocket your free labour and tell you to sling your hook.

The promise of a bright future in a trade is a hard argument for a generation of people whose first experience of an economy was one in recession. In the face of these dim economic prospects, a record number of young people are living with their parents, concerned for their slim chances outside of the family home.

When austerity is bought into, the generation that hasn’t yet proved it’s worth is the one that bears the brunt to keep everyone else where they are. Suffering a severe handicap before the starting gun has even been fired, it’s those who are celebrating their sweet sixteens that need the helping hand.

For them, saying that someone works minimum wage is not the playground insult that it once was – now, a normal minimum wage is something to be desired.


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