Punitive Approaches Won’t Help Young Australians Get Back to Work

By Zoya Patel

In 2012 I was serving on the Australia Social Inclusion Board, a federal government Board that was disbanded by the current government in late 2013.

During my time on the Board I was able to learn about many of the issues facing Australians in geographical areas of vulnerability, or who were living with multiple disadvantages. It was an incredible learning experience, and particularly interesting for me as I was unemployed at the time and seriously struggling to find work in Melbourne.

I had moved there after finishing university and I suffered through eight months of unemployment before I found work, despite sometimes sending in up to six applications per day and applying for roles across hospitality, retail, admin and my actual industry – communications.

I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, but my work on the Board often forced me to confront my privilege and focus on the impact of unemployment on people who didn’t have a safety net like I did. My parents could pay my rent, and I could get by on my savings relatively comfortably. This was a serious privilege in comparison to some of the young people I met.

At a jobseekers’ forum in Melbourne, I listened to some truly heartbreaking stories. There was the young man who used to be an office worker before he was diagnosed with epilepsy and found that the flickering light behind computer screens triggered his condition. At the forum, he spoke about trying to retrain and being unsure of what the future could hold for him.

Or another young man who was a truck driver until he hurt his back and couldn’t sit through long-haul journeys anymore. He, too, was struggling to grapple with this change to his prospects.

Youth unemployment is Australia is still significantly high – currently, we’re sitting at a 13.8 per cent rate of youth unemployment, compared to a rate of 7.7 percent in 2008.

In the 2014-15 Budget, the Abbott Government announced a proposed waiting period of a maximum of six months for people under 25 years of age looking to access Newstart or Youth Allowance payments. They have since pared that back to a maximum of four weeks in the 2015-16 Budget.

It’s alarming to think about the potential impact of a month without any form of income on an individual – one month is more than enough time for someone’s entire life to become derailed. The assumption behind this policy is that young people need to be “encouraged” to seek employment prior to accessing welfare. It suggests that young people aren’t trying hard enough, that we’re looking for an easy way out. That unemployment is essentially a choice and with the right incentives the youth unemployment rate will naturally decrease.

It in no way acknowledges the challenges young jobseekers face – like the fact that most jobs have a minimum experience requirement, which is impossible to meet if no one will give you a job in the first place; or the fact that many of the unskilled jobs young people relied on to get their foot in the door have been automated, leading to a shrinking pool of opportunities for a much larger cohort of seekers; or the fact that, as in the examples I mentioned above, unemployment is often a result of inescapable circumstances.

I really do believe that for the majority unemployment is never a “choice”, and it’s frustrating and saddening to see this punitive approach towards ending youth unemployment in our country.

Whilst there isn’t a simple solution to this issue, the efficacy of existing job readiness programs should be assessed, as well as the provision of tailored and targeted programs for young people with disabilities or chronic illness.

Ultimately, the government needs to recognise that the multiple factors that lead to unemployment are complex, and rarely the result of a considered choice on the part of the individual to live off welfare. A punitive approach to youth unemployment won’t address this, and is likely to result in individuals struggling to get back on their feet for a longer period of time.

Zoya Patel is a writer, editor, founder of Feminartsy, and a Right Now columnist. She tweets @zoyajpatel

Feature image: Lena Vasiljeva/Flickr

This column has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.