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The real reason Rishi Sunak’s national service plan is unhinged

Forcing three quarters of a million 18-year-olds to work for free ignores the fact that many are doing so already.

By Will Dunn

As a teenager I worked in a dessert factory where my duties included dropping circular sponge wafers, two at a time, into plastic pots as they wobbled past on the production line. I remember imagining I was dropping coins into my bank account, which helped. I also worked as a cleaner in a hotel, where I opened up a suite one morning to find that a well-known film director (now deceased) had smeared a large slice of chocolate cake across a glass coffee table, as he’d attempted to paint with it. As a waiter in a café I would sigh each morning at the arrival of the man who would try, every day, to get me to join him for breakfast, his wife fuming at his side.

The worst job I had as a teenager, however, was the single shift I spent waiting tables at a branch of Café Rouge – still at that point riding its endorsement in Bridget Jones’s Diary – which seemed fine until, as we closed up, the manager informed me that I had passed my “trial shift” and would begin being paid the following week. This unpaid element had not been negotiated, or indeed mentioned, so I quit on the spot with a threat to take the matter public, which I have now done. I could tolerate boredom and weird customers, but not being paid was unconscionable.

This, for me, is what makes Rishi Sunak’s plan for “national service” for 18-year-olds truly unhinged. The military service part doesn’t sound that bad. I can’t see “Vote for me and I’ll force your kids to join the army” doing huge numbers at the ballot box, but only a small minority of the national service kids would actually do military training (there are 30,000 placements out of around 800,000 18-year-olds). It sounds like they’d probably get to go camping and fire the occasional gun without the danger and years-long commitment of actually joining the forces. The real problem is the three quarters of a million teenagers who would be made to work for free.

This is a problem because it’s happened already. In decades past, a lot more work was done for us by other people, and a lot of those people were teenagers. Technology has moved much of that work to the consumer: we scan our own shopping at the supermarket, check ourselves into holiday rentals, assemble our own furniture, pump our own fuel. Social media is a system in which billions of people are duped into working, sometimes for hours per day, for free.

These changes have particularly affected the young; the Saturday jobs that once gave an early experience of work have declined while unpaid internships have risen dramatically. It isn’t that the UK lacks what Rishi Sunak calls “a culture of service”, it’s that large companies are making us (and particularly our youngest adults) do more free work than ever before.

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It’s true that if you look at the Office for National Statistics’ Time Use Survey, people aged 18 to 24 do less “unpaid household work” than other age cohorts. But when you dig into what counts as “unpaid household work”, this includes “walking the dog”, “window shopping”, lighting the fire and cooking. A retiree who spends their Sunday taking the dog for a nice walk, gets a couple of Ottolenghi recipes on the go and lights the wood-burner could rack up as much “unpaid household work” as an 18-year-old who spends the day ironing and hoovering. Gen Z kids also spend much less time on “entertainment and socialising” than their parents and grandparents, and they spend more time on education that all other cohorts combined (which they also pay for at a much higher rate than previous generations).

If there is a reticence among young people to take on the less fun or glamorous work of the modern economy, it might be because they haven’t experienced a paid job until they’ve spent £50,000 being educated for one, at which point they understandably have some fairly high expectations about the work they’re entitled to pursue. We already have a “culture of service” – the UK has one of the higher rates of volunteering in the world. I don’t see how imposing yet more unpaid work on 18-year-olds would change that.

[See also: The Tory plan for pensioners is expensive and pointless]

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