Discrimination is fine – as long as it benefits the young

Raf Sanchez, who was a friend for some of the time I was at university and editor of the best student newspaper in the country, seems to have been picked up as the Times’ token student. He has an article in their comment section today which will ensure that if anyone else in the country had any lingering sympathy for students/recent graduates/young people during the recession, they’ll forget about it.

His article states that it’s a relief for ‘young hopefuls’ that the European Court of Justice has upheld the government’s decision to allow companies to force employees to retire at 65. Because that will make way in those companies for more jobs for us.

The article’s written in Raf’s usual satire-edged style so I find it difficult to tell whether he’s actually serious or not, but I’ve been forced to conclude that he means it. Out with the old, in with the pretty.

As at least one of the commenters on the Times website has pointed out, you could say the same if companies were allowed to refuse to hire women, or to (openly) fire women for getting pregnant. Take this passage from Raf’s article – imagine the word ‘women’ in place of 65-year-olds, ‘man’ instead of ‘adult’ and ‘men’ instead of ‘grown-ups’.

“Most 65-year-olds are still capable of work. Many will have dependants. Some will have an outstanding mortgage. Most potent of all, they claim that no one should ever be stripped of the dignity that comes with work. But in preventing businesses from enforcing retirement we would deny young people the chance to gain that dignity in the first place. In our society you are not an adult until you are working. If we, today’s graduates, are unable to work, we will never be considered, nor will we consider ourselves, to be grown-ups. We will become the first residents of a never-never land into which successive classes will follow. ”

Discrimination can, indeed, create many job opportunities for those fortunate enough not to be in the discriminated-against group. Doesn’t make it right.

Raf tries, as many have, to suggest that this particular form of discrimination is OK: “Retirement is part of a natural cycle. The oldest and most senior people retire and the entire organisation moves up a rung – leaving space at the bottom to be filled by a new generation.” Which would be fine if it wasn’t bollocks. That argument only makes sense if ‘the oldest and most senior’ people retire and then immediately die. Back in the real world people are living longer, they’re able to work longer and they should be entitled to keep doing so until the state and the banks can guarantee them the same income for the rest of their lives when they retire.

In fact, not even then. My Grandad (sorry, I know I go on about my family too much on here, but at least I don’t blog about the washing-up) retired at 65, with the house all paid for and enough of a pension to ensure him a reasonably comfortable old age: after a few months of ‘trundling around the garden’, as Raf has it, he was bored to tears, so he went out and got three jobs.

Six years later, he’s just settled a case for unfair dismissal, because last year he turned 70, and one of his employers promptly fired him. Said employer went about this in a particularly stupid way, which is why Grandad was able to take him to a tribunal: because, of course, if you go about it the right way, you can sack a perfectly competent worker using their age as an excuse while staying perfectly within the law. And the ECJ, it seems, are fine with this.

But hey, more jobs for the boys and girls, right? For God’s sake. I sympathise deeply with the last few years’ output of university graduates because when the government slapped top-up fees on them (yeah, I’m back to criticising the government, all is right with the world once more) it was on the understanding that they would be more or less guaranteed jobs to pay off their massive amounts of student debt when they graduated. Moreover, those students struggling to put themselves through university with part-time jobs are going to be hard-hit as competition for those jobs grows. If we’re going to keep the target of 50% of young people entering higher education in mind throughout the economic crisis – which we absolutely should – then the government needs to rethink the debt with which it is saddling students, and fast.

But, somehow, I don’t think students and recent graduates are the most deserving demographic for public sympathy as the recession worsens. People afraid of losing their homes, people struggling to support their families, people made redundant in middle-age with few transferable skills: these are the people in need of real help now. Not a generation of (largely, and with no offence intended to student parents, mature students etc) single people in rented houses who enjoy, as Raf does, the benefits a degree and a university experience can add to their own talent and hard work. Especially when they belie their own intelligence by implying that we are the first generation to go through this – ‘the first residents of a never-never land into which successive classes will follow’.

FFS. We are not the first generation to reach working-age in a recession nor will we be the last. I have no doubt that Raf will get snapped up immediately he graduates, if he hasn’t already, because with the exception of this article he is an astonishingly good journalist, a hard worker and an even harder networker. For the rest of us, starting our working lives in pubs and call-centres is not going to kill us, even if we don’t all find it worthy of our dignity. Willingness to accept that our careers may not start off as glamorously as we’d like; a sense of perspective and of history; a little empathy for those worse-off than ourselves: maybe when we’ve acquired a few of these qualities, then we’ll be able to start considering ourselves ‘grown-ups’.

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