Boot camps won’t solve our youth unemployment problem

Boot camps are a superficial solution to the complex social and economic problem of unemployment. Image from

The ALP’s proposal to send unemployed youth into military-style “boot camps” to qualify for the dole is a superficial solution to a complex social problem.

As I’ve argued in a TC article earlier this year, youth unemployment is an intransigent, long-term problem, and an outcome of ongoing structural economic and industry changes.

The idea of boot camps prompts many questions. If there are resources for this, why aren’t there more resources for long-term training and assistance that lead young people into jobs? Why are there not more resources to help disadvantaged students who are at risk of dropping out of education prematurely? Why isn’t there industry assistance in areas with high youth unemployment?

The reason, of course, is that these responses are too hard, and would require significant additional funding at a time when the government is seeking savings to meet its budget surplus promises. Of more concern is where funding will come from. A government source has already indicated that the policy will cost $70 million, an amount that is likely to be reallocated from Job Services Australia.

The boot camps will be targeted at school leavers aged 15 to 21, with the aim of instilling a sense of “discipline”. But the problem with this idea is that it buys into the notion that unemployed youth are lazy, badly behaved, and socially inept – certainly not suitable for jobs. It is their fault that they are unemployed and not the fault of the economy or the labour market, or bad government policy and underfunding. We saw the types on the UK Brat Camp series. Hard-nosed government programs to get unemployed and troublesome youth into shape is bound to have some electoral appeal.

But mandated boot camps for unemployed youth are a step away from a “gulag” approach to social problems. They are another dent in the social safety net. It moves us away from the post-war view that unemployment is a social risk emanating from structural economic changes to one in which it is seen as an outcome of individual deficits. Hence governments abrogate their responsibilities for communal social protection and focus their policies and programs on character “reform” of the unemployed themselves, through harsh obligatory, individualised programs such as boot camps. Arguably, the low level of Newstart is already part of the change in outlook on unemployment as a communal social risk to one of individual deficit.

Of course, character reform of the unemployed is not going to create one single new job for them or give then the real world skills they need to compete for the real world jobs. At the end of the day, it is a purposeless and self-defeating experiment sure to result in greater alienation and social exclusion.

It is not that outdoors programs are a bad option for youth. Opportunities for bushwalking, camping, back-packing, rock climbing, skiing, mountain biking and the rest should be open to all. They are usually group activities that bring out the best in people and foster appreciation and respect for the natural environment. More resources are needed so that young people constrained by low incomes and the social exclusion embedded in unemployment can have access to these opportunities. But the co-option of these delightful, life-enhancing activities for dubious social experiments such as boot camps for the unemployed is objectionable.

If the government thinks the great outdoors is worth promoting to young people who may be missing out on its pleasures, then let us have a non-obligatory youth outdoors program linked to training, education and support for unemployed youth that seriously addresses the barriers they face to getting decent jobs to start them out in adult life.