‘Learn or earn’ is the politicians’ equivalent of Stairway to Heaven


According to the Australian, the Abbott government’s first budget will include tough new "learn or earn" Measures designed to force young people off the dole and into education, training or work. "One thing the government doesn’t want to do is to continue to pay people to stay at home and do nothing," a senior government source said.

There’s a sign on the wall

There’s a scene in the movie Wayne’s World where Wayne goes to a guitar store, picks up a Fender Stratocaster and starts playing Stairway to Heaven. The clerk grabs the guitar and points to sign on the wall – "No Stairway to Heaven" [video]. For decades, guitar students have been learning the song’s intro by heart and playing it to impress their friends. But guitar store staff are not impressed. They’ve heard it too many times.

If if you listen very hard the tune will come to you at last

Getting tough with young unemployed people is the politicians’ equivalent of playing Stairway to Heaven. It’s a familiar tune. In 1994 the Labor government announced a plan to abolish unemployment benefits for people under 18 in an effort to push teenagers into education and training. Then in 1997, Britain’s ‘New Labour’ government unveiled a plan to get young people off the dole and into work or training. Chancellor Gordon Brown, said that the government’s plan to "rebuild the welfare state around the work ethic." Every 18 to 25 year old unemployed for more than six months would be offered four options: a job with an employer, work with a voluntary organisation, work on the environmental task force, or full time education or training. "There will be no fifth option", said the Chancellor.

There are two paths you can go by

As opposition leader in 2004, the Australian Labor Party’s Mark Latham reduced the options to two. In his budget in reply speech he said:

Tonight I can announce that a Labor Government will create a Youth Guarantee: young Australians either in employment or education and training.

Under our policy, young people will have just two options: they can be either learning or earning. No third option of sitting around doing nothing.

We’ll provide additional work and training opportunities. And young people will be obliged to participate, to do something good for themselves, their families and the community. Learning or earning – no third option under a Labor government.

Almost immediately, Latham was accused of stealing the idea. Six teenagers from the National Youth Parliament said it was their idea. According to 18 year old Bruno Bouchet: "In my speech I said, ‘That the purpose of this bill is to ensure that young people are either learning or earning in the workforce, not simply doing nothing." The Prime Minister, John Howard, thought this was hilarious and quoted Bouchet’s words back to Latham during question time.

The "learn or earn" rhetoric returned under the Labor government’s learn or earn compact. In a 2011 speech Prime Minister Julia Gillard said: "Our Learn or Earn compact, guaranteeing every young Australian under 25 a training place if they are not already in full-time education or work." Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said it was unlikely the government would succeed because getting unemployed people back into work would cost billions of dollars.

Last year, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested cutting benefits for under 25s. "Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits," he said. We want to see "everyone under 25 earning or learning."

Ooh, it really makes me wonder

And here we are today. Prime Minister Tony Abbott says: “There will be an ‘earn or learn’ approach for young people … if you leave school and don’t go to university you can’t go on the dole. According to media reports, school leavers may soon face a six month waiting period before they can receive benefits.

Will politicians keep doing this forever? Or will the piper eventually lead us to reason?

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18 Responses to ‘Learn or earn’ is the politicians’ equivalent of Stairway to Heaven

  1. Simon says:

    Politicians repeatedly attack the victims of their policies.
    These “kids” are the low hanging fruit that are not in a position bite back hard. They’re just trying to eat, rent and complete the required (futile) job applications.

  2. Sancho says:

    It’s a classic riff because there’s always a generation of Old Economy Steves who like being told that their generation was virtuous and hard-working, unlike the modern yoof, who are all lying around on the pot and listening to rave-house computer music.

    The Flynn effect suggests that the youngest generation is usually the smartest, though the Boomer die-off is just beginning and may wreak havoc. Demographics is destiny, after all.

  3. desipis says:

    Great, so we’re going to force a bunch of disinterested lay-abouts onto the tertiary education system, where they’ll probably learn nothing of economic value, rack up HECS debt they’ll never pay back, and contribute to the watering down of quality in our universities. I wonder if this same mob will have the gall to try to privatise the education and debt systems that are going to now grow as a result.

    It seems to me this is another step towards constructing an underclass of lickers desperate to serve those who serendipitously pulled themselves up by their straps.

  4. Greg says:

    But the good thing is over the past 30 years the policy has been shown to work, right?… Right?? *tap tap* Is this thing on?

  5. Andrae says:

    …because naturally, the best thing we can do for demoralised, unemployed, kids living below the poverty line, and at increasing risk of depression, is to strip them of their medical support; make what little help their government is willing to provide as degrading and punitive as possible; and charge them an extra 75% marginal tax whenever they do have the good fortune to land a minimum wage job—oh, and may as well cut their, already pitiful, minimal wage.

    After all, you wouldn’t want them to have life too easy; it might spoil them. Clearly the free healthcare, free education, full employment, cheap housing, and low cost of living turned their grandparents into the spoilt brats currently running the country into the ground—you wouldn’t want to repeat that mistake now, would you?

  6. Helen says:

    About ten years ago I ran a training program for young Aboriginal people, many early school drop-outs and mostly on the dole. In itself it was highly successful, especially in teaching skills and changing attitudes. So successful in fact that for the next weeks, months and years, I was regularly asked by the participants ‘please, how do I get a job in this area’, then ‘can you help me get any job?’ Typically it was one of those on-off government funded good idea projects with no follow-up and no jobs. It raised expectations, then dashed them. Some people do training project after training project, amass certificates, but still no job. Others give up and sit on the dole. Who can blame them?
    PS the same thing will happen when the pension age rises – for most older people there will be no jobs, and a future government will be saying exactly the same things. No training, no job, no dole.

  7. john Walker says:

    In the late 80s I had a part time job, doing training in a skillshare, in a part of Sydney with a lot of long term unemployment . While much of the training done by this place was pretty low grade- mostly cleaning certificates and the like-, and was relatively costly to provide, it did have some real benefits. Many of the kids we trained had become agoraphobic and listless- simply getting them ‘out of the house’ and into a center where they could meet people who were not the same as them, and also receive some caring encouragement , did have some benefit to them.

    Since then I have also seen some attempts at training of unemployed youth in a rural context, problems were that trainers are not easy to get( especially at the rates of pay on offer) and many of the trainees were not at all suited to the program.

  8. paul frijters says:

    Hi Don,

    hilarious! And so true. ‘Don’t be alarmed now’.

  9. RexR says:

    These days I find that playing Stairway to Heaven in a guitar shop barely elicits a response. That Is until I try to sing it.

  10. Ken Parish says:

    It’s probably completely inappropriate to post a video of Rolf Harris’s version of Stairway to Heaven given that he may have done disturbing things with his wobble board that may well have caused affected children to feel that earning or learning was the least of their worries. But I’ve never been seriously concerned about good taste.


  11. john Walker says:

    Given that we are all headed for the ‘lifeboat’, we might as well do it with style:

  12. john Walker says:

    Sorry the lifeboat is here

  13. john Walker says:

    Ken I can’t get the embed to work :(
    here’s the link to a very tight, stylish lifeboat band
    one of our all time favs

  14. Mel says:

    John Walker has demonstrated perspicacity with this comment:

    Many of the kids we trained had become agoraphobic and listless- simply getting them ‘out of the house’ and into a center where they could meet people who were not the same as them, and also receive some caring encouragement , did have some benefit to them.

    I’ve seen the same thing happen myself, with kids losing self-esteem and becoming housebound and dysfunctional during prolonged unemployment. For such people, “work for the dole” and training can be beneficial. Of course they would be even more beneficial if a job was guaranteed after they finish.

    But that is the only positive thing that can be said Abbott’s scheme. There are too many people chasing too few jobs and training people for jobs that don’t exist or are already oversupplied with labour is a cruel trick to play on young people.

    • john Walker says:

      The particular skillshare that i worked for , eventually went broke- Its costs were too high relative to the payments it received from government and it failed in its bid to get a lucrative contract doing remedial english training for workers in a oil refinery, that would have underwritten the costs of all its programs .
      The governments ‘earn or learn’, if done properly, will cost.

  15. murph the surf says:

    If this is a serious attempt at social engineering then why not go the whole way and introduce national service?
    It wouldn’t have to involve arms use or training unless some wanted to do so but would address the issues of motivation, compliance and would also allow a more controlled education process to be implemented.
    The current scheme whereby school leavers can’t access benefits till older ages has left rural high schools acting as daycare centres for poorly motivated poorly educated late teens.There are few jobs , no education is occurring for the majority and they waste resources better aimed at other students.
    If this earlier system has been such a flop then a more rigorous support system is needed.
    However some caution is needed in the green corps schemes.Working with power machinery and on farm is about the most dangerous occupation in Australia so the risks of injury will no high. Here I am thinking about the schemes to send the unemployed out to work across those areas of work currently being done via Landcare .This has been another scheme which has had it’s finances rearranged and the current understanding is that instead of rural landholders doing the work with materials being paid for , the unemployed can be dispatched to complete these land management tasks.
    The first kid to lose an arm using an augur will end this if the response to the pink batts program is a guide.

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