A McJob for every 14-year-old?

It might not be so bad. Young people must learn basic skills if they are ever to get real work
Click to follow
The Independent Online
So 14-year-olds are to be put out to work - back to child labour, or a sensible, if partial, rebuilding of the apprentice system? Actually it's neither; it is much more an updated version of a traditional approach to vocational training which goes back to medieval times.

Then the normal practice for teenagers was to go and live with another family. In towns this would typically mean living above a shop; in the country they would be on the farm or smallholding. Boys would learn the craft while girls helped in the house. Children learnt by doing and in return for the training provided cheap labour. When they reached their early twenties they were ready to set up on their own, have a family, carry on their normal lives, helped in turn by another generation to whom they would pass on the skills.

This was, of course, before factories, universal schooling, a retirement age, all the paraphernalia of the modern economy. Nowadays we think it normal that there should be a rigid distinction between school and work, like that between work and retirement, because that is the way society has been organised for upwards of a century. People were learning, or working, or retired.

But in the past 20 years things have changed. Work now involves periods of learning: training on new equipment, learning foreign languages, developing new methods of handling customers, understanding new products to sell. So most people learn a great deal as part of their normal working life and regard that as quite normal: distinctions have become blurred.

We are less accustomed to the blurring between work and retirement, for there is still an ideal that people should work full-time until a fixed retirement age of 65 or 60. But not only is the idea of a fixed retirement age a relatively recent phenomenon - it was an invention of Bismarck - it has been radically modified by redundancy, early retirement and part- time working. Much less than half of all male employees work on full-time to 65. Institutionally we are still organised as a society for retirement at 60 or 65, but in practice we have blurred that distinction too.

The one distinction that we have largely retained is the one between school and work. Of course, some trades, such as acting or modelling, have a specific demand for children. And the inexorable advance of higher education (which keeps young people out of the full-time job market) couples with the equally inexorable advance of private-sector service industries (which creates a demand for not-very-skilled young labour) means that many students do part-time work.

But the structure has hardly adapted. The old apprenticeship structure has collapsed because the skills that were taught are no longer needed: the whole world economy has replaced craftsmanship with the computer and DIY. Instead, while there are limited schemes designed to ease young people across the barrier between the two lives, for many people these are clearly inadequate: young enterprise schemes in schools, work experience, "take your daughter to work" days and so on.

A system that worked quite well in matching young people more or less to the available jobs has broken down. A generation ago, when fewer than 5 per cent of young people went to university, there was demand for craft skills, apprentices both provided cheap labour and, when qualified, the craft skills that industry needed; and people without skills could get jobs in the factories, for the jobs there were still growing fast.

But the hierarchy of available jobs no longer matches the hierarchy of young people. There is a shortage of people at the top - exemplified by the very long working hours of young professionals - and of jobs at the bottom - exemplified by the numbers of unskilled young people on the dole

So now we have a plan to incorporate people as young as 14 into the workforce by getting them into part-time work while still at school, The test that should be applied is whether this is likely to reduce the mismatch.

If it were an attempt to rebuild the apprentice system it would be hopeless. The one lesson of the past two decades is that it is at best pointless and at worst destructive to train people for jobs that do not exist. It is almost as cruel as the make-work schemes that pretend to train but in reality merely take young people off the unemployment statistics for a short period.

But as employers point out, much of the problem with the unemployed young is less lack of specific skills, but rather lack of understanding of what is expected of employees: the basic disciplines of time-keeping, order and self-discipline. You can teach people job skills; much harder to instil life skills.

This chimes with American experience: it is amazing what can be achieved with good job training. One of the geniuses of the US economy is its ability to deliver high-quality services with mediocre-quality labour. It pumps out jobs, with the result that it has much lower unemployment than Europe, maybe even (if it were measured properly) lower unemployment than Japan.

The trouble with the American system is that many of the new jobs are low-paid: the charge of the "hamburger-flipping" society. Anyone advocating getting 14-year-olds into the workplace is open to the accusation of encouraging that development. Yes, it must be useful to give people the taste of the personal disciplines needed in the workplace; but not at the expense of education to lift people into better jobs at some later stage.

There seem to me to be three responses to that. One is that we should not sneer at "bad" jobs, particularly since we are happy enough to enjoy the fruits of these people's labour. All work deserves respect.

The second is that we should recognise that doing "bad" jobs should be a stage that more people will go through while young - just as the medieval youth provided cheap labour - as the distinction between education and work blurs further. But doing these jobs while young does not condemn people to a lifetime of hamburger-flipping any more than the summer jobs taken by Harvard students mean they will not become Wall Street lawyers.

Finally, we need to create loops which pick up people who have, for whatever reason, lost out in formal education while young, or who find their skills are no longer in demand. They have to have the opportunity of re-entering the high-skilled workforce. Dealing with the problem 14-year-olds attacks one aspect of the mis-match. Bringing back the problem 44-year-olds attacks the other.