By Joshua Parkinson

Since women gained the right to vote in 1918, the fight for gender equality has only intensified. A key demand that many women have in the workplace today is for equal pay. Yet the fight for equal pay is not one purely felt by women but by young people too who suffer through the institutionalised system of age pay brackets.

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The way the system works is that at the moment only people over 23 years old get the full minimum wage of £8.91 per hour. 

While it is lower for people between 21 and 22 (at £8.36/ph), it is even lower for people 18 to 20 (at £6.56/ph) while under 18s make nearly half the full minimum wage at just £4.62/ph. To top it off, young people taking an apprenticeship course earn just £4.30 an hour.

Currently, the government is set to raise the minimum wage in April. However, they are sticking with the current policy of having different brackets of pay for younger age groups, with the only amendment being that apprenticeship wages will be the same as the minimum rate for under 18s, still a miserly £6.83.

In the interests of fairness, this is a policy that must be abandoned.

Why the brackets in pay?

The main excuse for the existence of different pay brackets for different ages is experience. Younger people have less work experience than older people who have worked and gained more experience over their lives. This means the lower pay handed out to younger people is to make them competitive in the eyes of businesses. 

In the eyes of employers, this means they can hire young people for lower costs, yet at the same time giving them access to a newer member of the workforce they can develop and train into experienced members of their team. It is argued that this may lead to even better future developments for the young person hired if they are given opportunities and training to succeed. 

The Low Pay Commission also notes that there is evidence of a “scarring effect” for young people that stay out of work, leading them to believe they are helping young people by encouraging them to get into work and be hired. Part of this is because the commission found evidence older people could “out-price” younger workers because if they earned the same wage, the older person’s experience would be worth more to the employer.

The Low Pay Commission however said that younger people are not being paid the same for the same work. What problems does this create?

Is this Ageism?

By not paying younger people for the same work, there is a disconnect between the policy and people’s circumstances and lives. Since 1998, when the minimum wage was introduced and the age pay bracket system came with it, society has changed massively. More and more young people are going to university and getting degrees, with UCAS stating that in 2021 37.9% of all under 18s were due to start courses, with this figure rising over recent years. Usually, these students will leave university at 21 and become weighed down by not only debt, but lower wages too.

This brings into debate whether practical experience or higher education is worth more. It is easy to imagine in the past that if most people left school at the age of 16, a lower wage for younger people fresh out of education made sense. However, with most young people in modern times gaining higher and higher levels of education- sometimes even more than the older people being paid more than them- it certainly smells like ageism.

The weight of lower wages also affects the hardest part about leaving university- setting up a life for yourself. Moving out of your parents’ house and getting your own place, working your first full time job, is a huge step in life after you leave education. With the knowledge of being given a lower wage than your colleagues for the same work, it only makes the possibility of moving out and living on your own even more difficult.

I asked one friend of mine how the pay differences affected their ability to set up a life for themselves. She said: “The wage system makes it very difficult to move out alone, but it is still possible to do it if you have a partner. It kind of adds to the pressure for younger women to enter into relationships.”

Not only does the wage differences cause issues with young people getting out into the world, but it also causes extra pressures and stress on other areas of young people’s lives. This is something that needs to be made aware of since situations like feeling pressured to get into a relationship to afford rent may only add to the stress our generation suffers with.

Not all young people are the same

The final point on why this minimum wage system needs to be reformed, is the privilege it hides in the assumptions it makes.

Firstly, people in certain circumstances are only punished by the lower wages they are forced onto. For example, those who have children at a young age or have others dependent on them, this could be a young person trying to support their parents if they are in poverty or struggle to work because of disability. It seems the current system assumes young people have access to a great “bank of mum and dad” which is not the case for a large number of people, including those in single parent households or trying to help parents with disabilities.

Luke also recently finishing university took the first job he was able to, ending up with his minimum wage of £8.36 per hour for between 21- and 22-year-olds. In his opinion it creates a feeling of being powerless as politics has decided “arbitrarily that he is a less productive member of society”. 

There is a disconnect with policy-making when it comes to thinking about the current minimum wage system, clearly where businesses were put first, allowing privileges to slide in and contradict the system. This punishes already marginalised communities and people who struggle with backgrounds of poverty, left out of the thinking around the minimum wage policy.In the background of increasing inflation never seen by our youngest generation, and those just leaving university the struggle with pay only deepens.

It is clear there is some hope after the age for the full minimum wage was lowered from 25 to 23 but the whole idea needs to be abolished for this unequal system to end. It is clear that the original idea of the policy was poorly considered, leaving too many gaps for privilege to step in and thus lead to a situation where a large number of young people suffer from unfairly low pay upon entering the job market.

From people with higher education struggling to set up a life after university, to those trying to support their family, and everyone else in between, the last bastion of pay inequality must come to an end.

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Last Update: February 07, 2022