Bloggers4Labour has an excellent post today on Andy Morton's proposals on the Compass website to scrap the national youth minimum wage. Responding to Morton's characterisation of the policy as 'ageist', Bloggers4Labour says:
What is it about ageism we really find offensive? Surely it would be the thought that workers with a great deal of experience, who are no less able to perform a particular job, are discriminated against at, or even before, job interviews, and find it very difficult to re-enter the job market. Do these same factors tell against workers under the age of 22? Clearly young workers do not have to face the prospect of early retirement, or de-skilling, with no prospect of earning decent money again. In the real world, experience is vital for one's career prospects, but young workers generally can't offer this to potential employers. Sure, this doesn't apply to all industries, and it doesn't apply to all young workers, as some will be highly talented. The NMW, however, applies to all, irrespective of industry, talent, and passion. Furthermore, are we saying that highly effective young workers can only expect to advance at the Government's behest?
I too am sceptical of an absolute concept of age discrimination in the workplace. Previous anti-discrimination legislation was formulated to tackle the prejudice faced by discreet groups in society: ethnic minorities, women, gay people. A white man, for instance, is never going to encounter the prejudice potentially faced by a black woman in the course of her work and life. It is entirely right that she is afforded the full and rigorous protection of the law against discrimination on the grounds of her gender and race.
Age, however, is something that happens to everyone. In the course of an average life, most of us can expect to experience what it is like to be young, middle aged and old. Furthermore, in our daily lives we 'discriminate' against people on grouds of age all the time. Children under 16, for instance, are required by law to go to school. Is society discriminating against them? Or is this a sensible policy for children of that age? When it comes to issues of age, the language and claims of identity politics can often cloud rather than clarify the issue in hand.
With regards to employment, common sense tells us that different skills and qualities are more likely to be associated with different stages of the life-cycle. A 18 year-old is unlikely to have the experience to bring to a job of a 40 year-old – anyone who has seen the look of fear in an intern’s eyes when the office phone rings can tell you that. Therefore, It is appropriate that the additional risks incurred by employers in taking on inexperienced young people should be reflected in the differing protections afforded to young people in work. As Bloggers4Labour suggests, scrapping the youth NMW could also have wider social consequences: risking a potential ossification of the youth labour market leading to problems of structural youth unemployment - similar to those that underlay the riots in the Paris suburbs last year.
It is right that the govenment should try to avoid this fate with a differential minimum wage. After all, the lower minimum wage given to workers below the age of 22 is not a permanent state of affairs for them. And the small cost in equity is more than made up for by gains in employment and social cohesion.