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A minimum wage conditional of age directly impacts students

Why is the “living wage” not for all?

By Eilidh McCartney


Photo courtesy via publicdomainpictures


The highlight of turning eighteen was the increased minimum wage. Twenty four hours ago me and my colleagues (whom were just a few months younger than me) were paid the same but now I am paid a whole two pounds more per hour and my role hasn’t changed. When I first turned sixteen I made roughly £4.35 an hour and many of the adults I worked with were paid upwards of nine pounds, despite having worked there longer than many of them. This prompts many questions, but most importantly – why does a sixteen year old deserve to be paid any less than a twenty-five year old if they are doing the same job?

If £4.81 is not a suitable wage for a twenty-one year old student then why is it a suitable wage for a sixteen year old student?

In the UK there is a bracket system to our minimum wage, at sixteen the wage is £4.81, at eighteen £6.83, at twenty-one £9.18 and at twenty-three we reach the national ‘living wage’ - £9.50 (as of April 2022). This system is not unique to the UK but there are various others which operate across the world. In Spain, the minimum wage does not differ between ages but rather by type of labour. In the USA, young workers (under 20s), may be paid less than their adult counterparts during a 90 day trial period but after this time elapses they must be paid at the same rate as everyone else. Additionally, specific pay requirements relating to this 90 day period are in place for students. So why is the UK behind?


One of the most popular answers to this is that the minimum wage age brackets ensure that those who are more experienced deserve to be paid more as they supposedly work faster, or they work to a higher standard. But, there are a couple of arguments which counter this. Firstly, an eighteen year old does not necessarily have more experience than a sixteen year old. Age does not imply experience or skill in any field. Secondly, is it fair to base a pay system on experience? Should workers be valued solely on the work they have done before, not the work they are currently undertaking? Does being good at a job before mean you are good at a job now? Of course, it is understandable to want workers that have experience in the field but to value and pay their workers on this entirely is not fair.


The government website states that one of the motivations for the age bracketed systems is to encourage young people to pursue education rather than full-time employment. But without the security of a fair wage how are students supposed to financially support their education? In 2022, nearly a quarter of students reportedly could not afford the books required for their course1. A survey of students in the 2020/21 year found that 76% worried about being unable to make ends meet2. Currently, inflation is rising faster than minimum wage. Those who are eligible for the national living wage suffer but younger workers suffer even further. When the majority of students are struggling with money it seems unreasonable to excuse the bracketed minimum wage as motivation to stay in education – in fact, it seemingly does the opposite.

If a sixteen year old is doing the same job as a twenty-five year old, why shouldn’t they be paid the same?

Scottish students can study from the age of sixteen. The minimum wage for sixteen year olds is currently £4.81. For eighteen year olds the minimum wage is £6.83 and for twenty-one year olds £9.18. Students of all these age groups face the same bills and the same monetary requirements in order to attend university. These bills and responsibilities do not change the moment the calendar flips to your birthday, so why does your wage? If £4.81 is not a suitable wage for a twenty-one year old student then why is it a suitable wage for a sixteen year old student? Why is the “living wage” - £9.50 – not for all? Don’t those below the age of twenty-three live? A minimum wage which is conditional of age targets some of the most vulnerable members of society. If a sixteen year old is doing the same job as a twenty-five year old, why shouldn’t they be paid the same?

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