There is probably no clearer example of direct discrimination in the UK than the current National Minimum Wage. The current minimum wage for people aged over 25 is £7.50, but for under 18s it is almost half that – at £4.05 an hour, or £3.50 for those on apprenticeships. People aged 21 to 24 are entitled to £7.05 per hour, while 18 to 20 year olds can earn £5.60 an hour, all for the same work as their colleagues aged over 25.
The Office for National Statistics estimates that 3.6 million young people aged 16-24 have a job, with the largest percentage of these working in sales or customer service roles. In wage terms, these groups have a median pay of £6.43 – 11% lower than their counterparts aged over 25. The Low Pay Commission maintains that this is fair based on several flawed and regressive arguments. Firstly, they argue, young people have less experience and are therefore less valuable in the labour market than those aged 25 or over. Secondly, the LPS claims that better wages would encourage young people away from full-time education and into work. And thirdly, they argue that the current brackets are based upon the reality that the longer you are in work, the more you earn. According to this logic, the LPS claims that those aged 16-17 are fairly paid and 18-20s are being paid 97% of their approximate market value.
All three of these arguments, however, run contrary to the central purpose of the National Minimum Wage. The purpose of a minimum wage is to prevent people from being exploited by granting them a minimal level of wage security, not to define levels of worth (for example by experience); something which should be left down to individual employers to set above and beyond the minimum standard. Contrary to guaranteeing a minimum level of security for all people in employment, the current law ensures that employers continue to exploit younger, cheaper labour. According to the LPS, “average wages of younger workers are sharply lower than those of older workers, perhaps a consequence of lower average experience, higher training costs or a weaker bargaining position.” Yet this is exactly the status quo that the current law seeks to protect.
According to the government, increasing the minimum wage for young people would result in more young people choosing work over full-time education. Young people typically work in highly demanding roles under stressful working conditions, including those described as “Victorian” at Sports Direct, and which resulted in strikes this year by McDonalds employees across the country. It is highly unlikely that young people are choosing this degrading work due to its ‘attractiveness’, and much more plausible that they are viewing higher education as an inaccessible or unaffordable option. Student fees of £9,000 per year and the removal of Education Maintenance Allowance mean that work is indeed becoming a far more palatable option: a net difference of almost £20,000 per year for someone aged 18 or over. The solution, however, is surely to reform the policy changes which made higher education such an unattractive option in the first place, not to engage in a race to the bottom in order to make work even less rewarding than student debt.
When you look at the gap between rich and poor in those applying to university, it is clear that children from low-income families are being hit hardest by the lower minimum wage rules. In 2016, UCAS figures showed that children who received free school meals were less than half as likely to enter higher education as their peers. While there is good logic in incentivising study, it is elitist at best to penalise young people who don’t select the university option after leaving school and instead choose to work and contribute to our economy. Although Theresa May pointed out the fact that white working-class boys were least likely to go to university when she became Prime Minister in 2016, she seems unable to acknowledge that this means they are the most likely to be in work between the ages of 18 to 25. At worst, a lower minimum wage for younger people constitutes a degree of wilfully impeding social mobility – favouring those who are able to be supported by their parents, and punishing those who are not.
It seems as though employment for under 25s is largely perceived by Westminster as “a little extra pocket money” for young people, rather than a lifeline for those from working-class backgrounds. Statistics show the reality is far different; 2.5 million young people don’t live with their parents, and 41% of those are living in poverty. Contrary to the myth of the young person with no commitments who can afford to live on less, 18.9% of mothers and 10.5% of fathers in the UK are under the age of 25 [ONS 2015]. It is impossible to fathom how families supporting a child on a wage of £5.60 per hour can afford to travel to work, let alone pay the bills and prevent themselves getting into debt. Yet no current government policies seem to take into account the younger working family, as though such a thing doesn’t exist.
The current National Minimum Wage is therefore not only a clear example of direct age discrimination, but also an example of indirect discrimination based upon class. Flying in the face of the concept of social mobility, the current rules work to prevent young people from working-class backgrounds from escaping the conditions they grow up in, whilst perpetuating the class divide between those who are more likely to enter work earlier, and those who will enter work later after graduating from university. This National Minimum Wage seems to, whether accidentally or intentionally, favour those from high-income families, particularly in southern England, whilst trapping young people from working-class families in a cycle of poverty and debt.
The current and previous Conservative governments have promised to “make work pay”. Yet by their own admission, current policies are designed to make higher education pay and to punish the route of employment for people under the age of 25. It is time the government stopped treating younger people like children and granted them the same entitlement to the National Minimum Wage. This would force employers to start treating their younger workforce as human beings, not as cheap labour. It would also allow young people to work their way out of the misery associated with poverty, instead of having to further draw upon social services, resort to illegal work, or end up being unable to take care of themselves or their families.