Grade inflation and the exploitation of youth labour

I want change

One story that caught the eye this week was this from the Guardian. Placement UK, a recruitment company, are offering firms a:

…unique, flexible and quite unbeatable solution to your staffing requirements…one of our clients has been using placement students continuously as their Office & Admin Manager … since 1997! So, for example, you could have a permanent graduate calibre office manager – for as little as £495 to £695 per month.

In defence of Placement UK (I know..!) they are undoubtedly not the only company seeking to exploit the precariousness of the labour market facing young people today. Young people leaving college and university at the moment are facing a labour market ravaged by austerity and made increasingly competitive by credential inflation. As undergraduate degrees have become a sine qua non for many jobs, it may be the case that post-graduate degrees are now necessary in order to guarantee access to more secure employment. In an ever congested labour market (where the door is being left open to unscrupulous practices as cited above) the exploitation of young people looks set to continue.

Iris Young perhaps better illustrates the situation better than I can:

The promise of education as a ticket to the top of the division of labour is not fulfilled because the hierarchical system permits only relatively few positions of privilege, and the credentialing system functions as gatekeeper to these positions. In good faith people pursue specialised training and acquire credentials, only to find no room at the top because so many others have done the same. They take jobs for which they are overqualified, thereby raising the formal standards for those positions, and the spiral continues.

This has been exacerbated since the financial crisis by the collapse in youth wages in comparison to their older peers. And programmes such as that advertised by Placement UK which have flourished since do little other than offer dead-end and cheap labour which exerts downward pressure on youth wages as well as stifling an opportunity which could potentially offer more secure employment for someone else. As Guy Standing writes in his excellent book, The Precariat:

A majority will be bumped down into jobs that do not require high-level qualifications. Insult is added to injury. They will be told they should be committed, happy and loyal in jobs that are beneath their qualifications and must repay debts incurred on a promise that their certificates would gain them high-income jobs.

The problem with the UK market at the moment is that young people are sold education on the basis that we need ‘human capital’ with more and better credentials in order to compete in an increasingly globalised market-place. The reality, of course, is that the biggest growth sector in the UK has been the service sector which does not require the level of education that graduates possess upon leaving university. As Alison Wolf notes:

I find it difficult to construct a convincing argument that more sixth-form qualifications and more degrees are needed so that people will be educated enough to stack shelves, swipe credit cards, or operate a cappuccino machine effectively. And it is important to remember just how many jobs like this do exist.

James Côté writes that due to exploitative work practices, declining status and negative treatment:

…the youth segment of the work force…in many Western countries now constitutes one of the most economically disadvantaged groups of the entire population and very few people object to this situation, seeing it as normal and justified. 

Seeing adverts such as that highlighted, it is difficult to argue with this position. How deep the problem of underemployment (working part-time or over-qualifed for their current job) is difficult to ascertain. Research by the LGA last year estimates that if nothing is done to alter the current situation a third of young people will be unemployed or underemployed by 2018 – leaving the door open to unscrupulous practices such as that above. If young people are desperate to work then they will undoubtedly be pushed into what is little more than exploitation.

(Image at top from

Categories: Youth Unemployment

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3 replies


  1. Boot Camps for the Young Unemployed | Exploring Youth Issues
  2. Putting the Boot into Young People : Intensive Unemployment Camps | IN DEFENCE OF YOUTH WORK
  3. Youth Un/Non/Employment in the UK today – Exploring Youth Issues

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