Work harder, not smarter: the struggle of young workers

Young workers are facing the blunt end of the cost of living crisis. They must organise and fightback, writes Niall Hignett

May 31, 2022 · 8 min read
A protest banner with the text respect existence or expect resistance Photo by Markus Spiske

To the reader of this article: stop. You should be working. You’ve already worked forty hours this week for £6.83 an hour? Tough. Work more, and when you’ve finally earned enough to buy your rations and pay your bills, you better get enrolled in cooking class.

A rotten system

Workers aged 18-21 can be paid as little as £13,318.50 per year for full-time employment. Between hiked national insurance, extortionate rent, rising food and energy bills, and stealth taxes on young people, we’re out of luck, and money. Consider this alongside 10.5 per cent of employees aged 16-24 being on zero hour contracts, and you may start to understand why even using our 24 hours hours in a day doesn’t cut it.

A financially mollycoddled middle class fails to recognise the precarity and poverty pay which defines youth employment. They, and their children, may not have to face our dismal employment market. But, with 2.2 million of Britain’s 7.3 million young people living independently, we are not a small minority. 300,000 young workers are universal credit claimants, many to top up their income due to their poverty pay. There are 12,000 care leavers per year; twenty percent become homeless within two years of leaving care. A system which deliberately suppresses those without financial cushioning, to maintain an inequitable class system.

Estranged students (those without parental support) in university, like myself, work excessively to ensure we are not impoverished. My rent, with bills included, for a single bedroom in a shared house is £8,372 a year. With my £9,480 student loan (the maximum), I’m left with £1,108 for other expenses. Food (that irritating necessity) costs the average person double what I have left. Of course, given how unsustainable my finances are, I work to subsidise my studies. Roughly 30 hours a week. Taking that into consideration, it is no wonder the attainment gap widens, and the prospects of young people, like myself, who polish the silver spoons, rather than sucking them, are ever dimming.

Rotten to the core?

Our old age parliament, with the average age of an MP in the 2019 cohort standing at 51, refuses to address the issues facing young people. Whilst Nadine Dorries may know how to ‘downstream movies’, she and the government don’t know hardship.  The opposition benches offer some levelling up, but the days of youth manifestos and promising liveable wages are long gone. Young workers face privileged employers telling us we aren’t entitled to our basic rights; if we want to succeed, we need to get our ‘f***ing asses up’, and by that, Kim K meant work yourself to the bone to circumvent corporations’ shoddy pay. This is reinforced by a cacophony of elders in tabloids informing us we ‘have it easy’.

Electing a political class who have constructed this system of oppression is not an appealing prospect for young voters. So, how can we even begin to fix our rotten system?

Repairing the rot

Where I find hope: union organisation and political education. When employees understand their rights, and know how to protect themselves, they are primed to battle decrepit employment conditions.

Trade unionism is often beset by bygone rhetoric, with some of the old boys’ club digging in their miners’ boots and refusing to modernise. However, even if bound by paper postal votes, trade unions must move online. As a young worker, I did not know my rights. There was no outreach to educate me, which meant I didn’t question the exploitative, and illegal, actions of my employers.

Where I find hope: union organisation and political education

Watching a friend and colleague (aged 15) get fired for eating her own sandwich, because breaks in  my workplace were not tolerated, was eye-opening. Retrospectively, it has allowed me to realise reaching out to young people, to educate on workers’ rights, is a necessity. An older generation must adapt to a new era of media consumption, and educate en masse, online.

The fixes

One example of the success of e-campaigning on workers’ rights comes from the US. ‘Gen Z For Change’, an online activist platform, recently flooded applications for temporary workers for Kellogg’s, so strike action couldn’t be undermined. The Tik-Tok driven activists have cultivated change from the comfort of their homes, driving political engagement online. They also recently directed almost 13 million clicks to a website which educated Americans on vaccination, to combat anti-vax rhetoric. If we can harness the potential of young people’s e-activism in the UK, the trade union movement can rapidly grow and educate the next generation on their rights, and how to improve their working conditions.

We must also recontextualise work. I always believed that I needed an employer; they provided me  with work, money, food, and relative security. The truth, however, is that my employer needed me. 45 per cent of the hospitality industry relies on the labour of under 18s, who are paid as little as £4.81 an hour. Without young workers, the hospitality and retail sectors would collapse. They need young workers, more than young workers need £4.81 an hour. Fundamentally, it is not right for two people, who contribute an equal amount of labour, to receive varying levels of pay, especially pay that is half of the national minimum wage, and less than half of the real living wage.

Young people, please, join a union. Start organising in your workplace, and don’t stop there. Work towards, in a quasi-missionary way,  sharing information. Our political participation outside of parliamentary politics is booming. From climate strikes to rapid collection of hundreds of thousands of signatures for e-petitions, young people are ready to organise and fight. Change is possible. The prospect of a youth-exclusive general strike, where young workers would strike until their working rights are elevated to that of over 23s, is not unfathomable. Molly-Mae is right; you should make the most of your 24 hours in a day, by organising, and fighting back.

If you’re a young person reading this, and, like me at thirteen, you want more information on what your rights are, see here. The way we’re  treated is not the necessity you’ve always been told. Through knowing your rights, joining a union, and organising, you can improve the conditions in the workplace. If you want to know how to organise, see here.

Niall Hignett is a law student and political activist

Mick Lynch media mania – the appeal of workers’ power

Style backed by serious politics can cut through in a hostile media landscape, writes Ewan Gibbs

Struggle, spies and ’68

Diane Langford recalls some of her most memorable experiences of feminist organising, union activism and solidarity campaigning

Universities, financialisation and the fightback at Goldsmiths

Vincent Møystad argues that as higher education institutions are pitted against each other, students, staff and activists must come together to resist a costly race to the bottom

Review – Daring to Hope: My Life in the 1970s

Feminist icon Sheila Rowbotham's memoir paints a dynamic picture of the 1970s trade union and feminist movements and as Lydia Hughes argues, there is much their modern counterparts can learn from them

An update from till two

In ‘The view from till two’, published on the Red Pepper website in November 2020, retail worker Tillie described her experiences of the pandemic. Here, she reflects on two years dominated by Covid – and considers what lies ahead

The tech fightback: an interview with United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW)

Liam Kennedy speaks to John Chadfield and Eran Cohen of the new United Tech and Allied Workers (UTAW) branch about their plans for the sector, democratic workplaces and big tech’s pollution problem

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...