Is it just me, or do too many Baby Boomers seem to find immense enjoyment in making bloodsport out of punching down on the millennial generation? Recently, one of our most televised and broadcasted political pundits, Mike Hosking—who also happens to be a walking stereotype of a self-entitled Boomer—had something inane to say to students who skip the country to avoid paying back their staggering student debts:
You want to talk about “THEFT”?
Ok then, let’s talk about the intergenerational theft many of the Baby Boomer generation have committed against my generation. The Boomers, enjoyed free university education. Then, once a small handful of boomers, including PM John Key, were elected to power, they ripped the ladder up and forced the millennial generation to go into staggering amounts of student debt.
Increasingly, “higher education” is becoming more of a privilege of the super-rich than a human right for anyone else.
You want students to stop skipping the country to avoid their staggering student loans? I can tell you as someone who has just turned 30, a loan feels more and more like a choke-chain around my neck, and the higher wages of lands like Australia and beyond seem increasingly enticing. Moving is entirely rational.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, we need to raise wages generally, and make our minimum wage market-leading. It would mean we would not have to skip New Zealand to avoid paying back loans for degrees that are now almost worthless in a stagnant and flooded job market full of overqualified and desperate graduates.
I have to ring the IRD monthly and beg for a “compassionate” extension for my student loan repayments ‘cos I earn so little, and my pay-check is so inconsistent because for my whole working life I have been subject to casual contracts. These contracts afford me zero job security and no promise of exact hours each week. I also have to contend with the embarrassment of going over my finances with some IRD call centre worker each time I call.
Bare in mind, I barely make over 18k a year. But if I don’t ring them up and “beg”, the IRD will take 20% of my pay-check because when I ‘skipped’ the country to Australia, in a bid to earn a better wage, I did not pay back my loan for a year. Why not? Because I was trying to pay back the overdraft I took out when I couldn’t make rent for a few months when I was a student. When you come from a working-class family of limited means you’re often forced to go into debt because your parents can’t bail you out when your landlord hikes up the rent or unexpected bills come through.
Graduates who were unable to secure a decent job with a liveable pay-check, which is a mass majority of us, are fighting over crappy, low-paid jobs we do not even want; I have been stuck working minimum wage jobs in the service industry for ten years now. I hold two undergraduates and two post graduates, including a secondary teaching degree. Primary teachers are now leaving the Auckland area because they cannot afford the rising living costs. Not to mention ‘permanent’ contracts are being rolled back in teaching work, and instead, yearly ‘fixed’ contracts are offered, so now you only have a guarantee of work for one year. Teacher’s wages do not increase in line with the Consumer Price Index, so you can imagine how hard it is to attempt to live on poverty wages in the service industry while trying to pay back tens of thousands worth of debt accumulated at university.
When lived in Australia, I made more money as a bartender pouring pints and making cocktails, than I would have done as a first year teacher in, New Zealand. Just let that sink in for a moment.
We are trying to survive in a ruthless job market where workers rights have been rolled back and undermined by money-hungry employers who care only for profit and not their workers. Our ability to pay off our student loans is directly related to what wages are on offer – this should be obvious; you’d think it would go without saying. Job creation has ground to a halt as such workers are being pitted against each other, serving only to push wages down even further.
As if that wasn’t enough, the National government has agreed to the TPPA, a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which will see the pitting of workers against each other only get much, much more aggressive and humiliating. Famed linguist and author, Noam Chomsky, recently told HuffPost Live,
“[The TPP] is designed to carry forward the neoliberal project to maximize profit and domination and to set the working people in competition with one another, to lower wages and increase insecurity.”
In a flooded job market, as low-wage workers with loans to pay back, we become desperate and easily exploitable – more willing to accept fewer, or zero benefits, and grudgingly agree to sub-human wages. Why? Because we have no other option: there has been a massive rise in precarious work in Aotearoa. It’s a global trend, begun in the US and exported around the world that this precarious work develops where the use of zero hours and casual contracts becomes common. These types of contracts leave workers economically vulnerable because they guarantee no set hours of work. Holiday and sick pay is often denied to them.
And guess who is mostly being offered these types of contracts? New immigrants, people of colour, women and yes, YOUNG PEOPLE. There are very many of uswho are being collectively screwed.
When, so often, those who took on student debt are just struggling to stay above the poverty-line, how are we meant to pay back our student loans?
Last month I was at an Auckland University student rally against ongoing fee-rises that mostly result in women and Maori and Pacfika people being locked out of higher education. Politicians, academic staff and student representatives spoke. Marama Fox, co-leader of the Maori Party, urged students to take to the streets and fight for a better deal. I caught her at the end and asked, “What do you think it will take to incite the kind of political rage we need to stop rising fees?”
Marama responded: “You have to have champions. You have to have people that just go out and relentlessly gather others behind them. You need people who are religiously going ‘We are going to do it’ and plan an action, and then do it. You can never ever let this issue go off the agenda. You need champions.”
Despite being highly qualified workers, we find it easy to start to demand less. We speak out less. We keep quiet and shut up about workplace injustices like the fact that white women are paid 11.8% less than men, and women of colour even less. It has become crystal-clear to me that as a worker I am only worth the profit I can generate for my employer, reflected in the poor wages they pay me and the benefits they’ve routinely denied me. It doesn’t matter how hard I’ve grafted for an employer, or how ‘back-breaking time-flexible’ I have been, or how much I’ve smiled at rude and obnoxious customers, I have never, in ten years of working in the hospitality sector, received a pay-rise.
I can’t pay rent, let alone pay back my student loan.
Not once was I rewarded for my loyalty or commitment with a measly 50 cent pay-rise from my boss. The only pay rise I can rely on is the annual increase which this year was only 30 cents. Yeah, please tell me again how ‘hard work’ will one day pay-off? It doesn’t. Under neoliberalism and a broken economy which so many Boomers ripped holes in, to tell anyone ‘hard work’ pays off, is nothing more than pacifying lies.
Put Mike Hosking on minimum wage and subject him to a zero hour contract, then lump him with the dead weight of student debt in the tens of thousands with no real way of paying it back, and watch how quickly things begin to change.
All of this: low wages, a rise in precarious and often part-time work, coupled with student debt is compounded by brutal and ongoing welfare reforms and cuts to public spending, enacted first by Roger Douglas Minister of Finance for the Labour government in the late 1980s, have created the situation many of us are in today. In 1992, Ruth Richardson of the National government carried on Roger’s destructive work with what she called ‘The Mother of all Budgets’. Ruth, fondly nicknamed “Ruthinasia,” made significant cuts to welfare and also introduced student loans; prior to this university education had been free.
Predictably, she’d never had to pay back any student debt herself.
Fast forward to current day Aotearoa, and PM John Key’s National-led government has placed further sanctions on welfare, making it an unbearably humiliating process and almost impossible to access whether you need it because you are out of work, sick, disabled, or mentally unwell. It doesn’t matter. You will face impunity and callousness from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ).
John Key, like Ruth, also introduced cuts to higher education via his capping of the student allowance; unless you come from a wealthy background, going on to a masters or a PHD becomes increasingly difficult. Placing barriers on access to education is a violation of a human being’s basic right to an education, and this includes higher education. One of the best ways to pull yourself out of poverty and access upward mobility is through education that is free and accessible, regardless of where you perch on the ladder of societal privilege.
When countries have a strong welfare system and social support nets, people, be they young or old, are not routinely forced to take any menial, demeaning job. It means they have more time to look for work that better suits their skills and education, and not just take anything because they are hungry and have bills to pay.
Yet, Mike Hosking thinks he has the right to publicly criminalise students by labelling them “thieves”, when they skip the country to avoid paying back crippling amounts of student debt? Which, ultimately, criminalises those from lower economic communities and families, who went looking for a ‘better life’ overseas. Mike, in all his white male privilege and arrogance, is very publicly perpetuating the War on the Poor.
It was Mike Hosking’s own generation which benefited so greatly from free university education, only to then turn around and rip it… no, steal it, away from not only my generation and Boomers and Gen Xers who decided to study later on in life, but the generation coming up after me. This generation has been labelled “Generation K,” after the character Katniss from dark dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. Katniss, a young girl, is forced to battle other young people from the lower socio-economic, working class districts in an annual televised death match, until only one is left alive. No wonder these books sold 64 million copies worldwide, and the series has become what Laurie Penny recently called the “defining mythos for this generation”; our world today acutely reflects that elitist and poverty stricken world described by Suzanne Collins, the author.
Journalist Laurie Penny, writes,
“Most teenagers I know spend a frightening amount of time reading dystopian fiction, when they are not half killing themselves trying to get into universities that they know are no longer a guarantee of employment.”
As Millennials I think we owe it to Generation K and the generations after them – who will not only suffer the worst effects of neoliberalism but the devastating effects of climate change also – to stand up to people like Mike Hosking. I think we owe it to Generation K and ourselves to tell Mike Hosking and those who push the same harmful and hurtful rhetoric just how disgusting and psychopathic we think their positions on the poor and disenfranchised of this country really are.
I believe, with all my heart, we owe it to the coming generations to take to the streets collectively again, like students are right now in America, to demand and fight for national student debt forgiveness and free education. On November 12th this year, more than 120 campuses across the US joined the first ever National Student March. Organizer Elan Axelbank told US Uncut,
“This has been building since the global recession in 2008. There are tens of millions of low-wage jobs, the cost of tuition is going up, and the amount of state aid has gone down. It’s almost impossible to pay off student debt today.”
We have a responsibility as millennials in Aotearoa, to move in solidarity with Generation K and ignite a National Student March of our own which is globally connected. We also need to strategically connect a National Student March movement with other workers such as our public healthcare workers who are enacting rolling strikes in Auckland, to protest cuts to public health, and university staff in places such as AUT who are ‘working to rule’, and walking off the job to demand fair pay and a better deal. I believe in workers solidarity generation to generation. There is strength in numbers.
As the picket slogan goes: “Workers, united, will never be defeated.”
The time has passed for asking nicely for what we want. How much more economic deprivation will it take until, finally, there is a tipping-point for young people in this country, and we fiercely and relentlessly stand up and become “champions ” for other people trapped by mounting student debt and low-paid, repetitive, depressing work? As far as I am concerned, revolt is the only option left.
We need to show intergenerational solidarity; we need to fight, not just for our own right to debt-free education, but more importantly, for the coming generations to have what we never did: access to free higher education.
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