THREE key themes are struck again, again and again when young people are discussed by politicians.
The first is that young people are innocent: We need to protect them from both themselves and predators. They tend to be naïve about the way of the world and, therefore, they just do not know what is good for them.
This accusation of naivety is often levelled at young people involved in politics and activism, particularly in the environmental movement.
The second thing you often hear about young people is that they are potential criminals and perpetrators of anti-social behaviours.
Here, every young person carries the stigma of being disrespectful, aggressive and criminally inclined.
And the third great theme about the youth is their laziness and indifference.
Watch out for the “whatever” generation. This is the new group who think that they are too good for the rest of us.
The story here is that they have all had it far too good for too long and do not know what it means to do a hard day’s work.
Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott rolled out all three of these on Wednesday when he proposed the concept of an age test for unemployment benefits. In fact, Abbott brought a “one stone, several birds” approach to the table.
His idea? Get the under-30s off the dole to encourage them to move west and fill labour shortages in the resources sector.
It is a policy that, according to Abbott, will create incentives for young people to work, take pressure off the welfare system, solve the skills problem and reduce the need for skilled migrants.
In other words, working in the resources sector will ensure young people experience a hard day’s work, get them off the dole (and off the streets) and ensure they play a productive role in the Australian economy.
The naivety problem will be solved: How can you be a tree-hugging hippie when you are digging a hole and working down the mine?
There are plenty of problems with this latest example of Abbott’s apparently impromptu policy-making.
The first is that this “send them to the mines” approach relies on the simple belief that labour is perfectly mobile – in terms of both skills and space. That is, in first year economics when you are taught about the world of “perfect competition”, you learn that labour can move between firms and sectors with little problem.
This is simply a model used to teach first-year students about the way an economy works in theory.
To apply this to the real world is ludicrous. Few people are perfectly mobile either with their skills or their networks. Sure, some people do move around for work – but such decisions are very difficult.
Then, there is the issue of skills. This is a concern that has managed to bring Steven Smyth, from the construction forestry mining and energy union and the Queensland resources council director Michael Roche into agreement. When mining and union bosses agree, it is worth paying attention. Both Roche and Smythe are on record as saying Abbott’s proposal indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the skills shortage.
Smyth puts it succinctly: “To take people and say ‘right, you can go and work in an underground coal mine or an open cut coal mine’ without having the proper training, the skills and the competency, I think, would be disastrous.”
Few of us, let alone people under 30, will have “a job for life”. Most of us will change firms and will alter our career paths.
“Job progress” no longer means staying with just one firm.
It can mean taking opportunities on shorter term casual contracts rather than waiting for a promotion.
nDr James Arvanitakis is a lecturer in humanities at the university of Western Sydney and is a member of the university’s centre for cultural research. His latest book, Contemporary Society: A sociological analysis of everyday life, was launched with Oxford University Press last February which gave rise to “socio-logic” on FBI Radio (94.5FM)