Attacks on ‘entitled’ young people prioritising their studies over getting Saturday jobs ignores shifts in the labour market, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
One of the many skills I learned on a Saturday job was being able to drive a forklift. I hesitate to use the word, ‘trained’, because it was a fairly informal learning curve.
Dave was the warehouse supervisor in a large DIY chain, and ostensibly my boss. He was also my drinking buddy.
Dave would show me how to drive the lumbering bright yellow beast and, more importantly, how to operate its forks. In due course, whenever one of us was suffering from a hangover of sufficient severity, the injured party would clamber on to the forks, and be lifted 30 feet up in the air – just high enough to climb into a tote box wedged full of sunlounger cushions, and blissfully snooze off the rest of the shift.
It seemed to us to be a roguishly ingenious system, and one I thought was foolproof – until the day Dave clocked off and headed for his train home to Paisley, having clean forgot I was still asleep, eight racks up.
My skilfulness with Yale’s machinery never quite made its way onto the foothills of my CV, but there were countless other lifelong lessons I picked up along the way that have stood me in good stead in the years since.
Mostly, this was the usual stuff – the link between work and reward, resilience, and learning about the quirks and curiosities of the public – and I relished being able to fritter away the £2.60 an hour I earned at the student union.
For the most part, the experience was too dreary to be classified as a rite of passage, though it ensured I have an enduring respect for those who toil away in retail jobs, spending long hours on their feet while biting their tongues at the latest iteration of corporate micromanagement. Getting a taste of independence and financial freedom, however, proved an addictive experience, and one I would recommend to any teenager looking for a disposable income during their studies.
For that reason, it was dispiriting to read new research showing that the proportion of teenagers doing Saturday jobs has almost halved in the past two decades.
A sense of privilege?
While as many as 48 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds carried out conventional paid work in 1999, only a quarter do so now, according to the Resolution Foundation think tank. It said the trend was being largely driven by young people prioritising their studies over part-time employment, with undergraduates aged between 18 and 19 also 25 per cent less likely to be in work than they were in the early 2000s.
Yet the research has been seized upon by some people of a certain age – who no doubt toiled dutifully in pre-decimalisation greengrocers, whistling while they worked – as evidence of how millennials are crippled by laziness and a sense of privilege.
As one commentator on Twitter bluntly observed of the study’s findings: “The snowflake generation see having a Saturday job as beneath them and feel they are entitled to an allowance and shouldn’t have to work for it.”
Leaving aside the fact such critics enjoyed the benefits of a free education, such simplistic and reactionary cross-generational assumptions ignore the main factor underpinning the death of the Saturday job. It is not young people who have changed. It is the labour market.
Retail, once the lifeblood of the Saturday jobs market, has suffered a steep and perhaps irreversible decline in the space of a generation.
The DIY store I worked in is gone, as is the newsagents where I fell in love with the smell of newsprint, and the record store where I blew an amp by cranking up the Black Crowes to an ear-splitting volume.
With five high street shops pulling down the shutters for good every week in Scotland, how do we expect youngsters to find gainful employment when their local thoroughfares are increasingly the preserve of bookmakers, tanning salons, and vape shops?
As for the big retail chains still maintaining a presence in our towns and cities, why would they seek out young, inexperienced Saturday shop assistants when the rise of zero-hours contracts means they can employ a pool of workers who are expected to come in for a shift at the drop of a hat?
Such expectations put those teenagers in full-time study at an automatic disadvantage, not to mention the fact that even if their academic timetable allows them to post off a CV, they will be in direct competition with more mature applicants, including working parents and graduates frustrated in their search for full-time work.
Throw into the mix other factors, including the cost to small employers of insurance cover and the red tape of safeguarding, and it is clear that the reasons for the decline in young workers are far more complex than the basic, insulting narratives bandied about online.
They will also have to work for far longer than any previous generation, and do so in the knowledge that they will be saddled for decades with debts from their education, while workers’ rights come under threat thanks to Brexit.
It is perhaps naive to expect that the downturn in youngsters taking up Saturday jobs can be curbed, let alone reversed.
Yes, more needs to be done to tackle the anxiety which grips so many students fearful about their academic performance, especially those who are not born into privilege.
But so too, greater emphasis needs to be placed on the value of the Saturday job, and for that, it is the economy that needs overhauled, not teenagers’ attitudes.