From ‘Generation Self’ to ‘the Saltire Generation’

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, March 16th 2013

Scotland is to embrace giving 16-17 year olds the vote in next year’s independence referendum.

This is a powerful statement of intent of Scotland wanting to do something different, and enfranchise young people in the debate on Scotland’s future.

Yet it leaves important questions unanswered. How different are young people from the rest of society? What political motivations dominate a generation who grew up as children after Scotland last qualified for an international football tournament – the World Cup of 1998? And more seriously, who began to make sense of the world to the backdrop of 9/11, the Iraq war, and ‘war on terror’?

To some these are Thatcher’s and Blair’s children, those who have grown up after the right-wing shift of British politics post-1979. To others they have been called ‘Generation Self’ or ‘Generation Y’, the fourth generational wave after the pre-war group, the ‘Baby Boomers’, and the ‘Generation X’ of the 1970s and 1980s.

Young people vote and are engaged less in politics than older generations. In the 2010 UK election, 44% of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to 76% of those over 65 year olds; 18-24 year olds were also divided by gender: 50% of young men voting and 39% of young women, the biggest gap in any age group, splitting equally between the three main parties: 31% Labour, 30% Tory, 30% Lib Dem.

Underneath these figures, research by Ipsos MORI released this week explored the attitudes of young people and across the generations. Across a range of indicators, they found young people shaped by the legacy of Thatcher and Blair, and attitudes of ‘Generation Self’.

When asked if unemployed people were more unlucky than lazy, 48% of 18-24 year olds disagreed, compared to 25% of those over 65. Similar findings were evident on support for the NHS and welfare state, and even on the pros and cons of knowing your neighbours, with the researchers concluding that this was evidence of the decline of solidarity and rise of individualist, consumerist attitudes amongst the young.

In this account, inter-generational inequality and tensions becomes a defining characteristic of an increasingly fragmented, divided society, where inequality, self-interest, and looking after number one, are everything.

This is a public culture which talks about ‘the increased burden’ of rising life expectancy, free care for the elderly, the problem of pensions, and the good fortune of the Baby Boomer generation.

Public debate in this analysis has become about how elderly, more affluent voters defend their assets, property and interests, against demographic and political pressures.

Young people, who vote less and have less political clout, have less stake and weight in the system, and are seen by politicians, for all the protests of UK Uncut and the Occupy movement, as more pliant. Thus, in the last couple of years a whole host of benefits have been withdrawn from young people, from housing benefits to the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) south of the border.

Things are both different and not that different in Scotland. 18-24 year olds were in one recent poll 58% in favour of independence, but this group don’t vote in large numbers. And the same would be true of 16-17 year olds.

The Scottish debate with the absence of tuition fees for students and the belief in a more solidaristic welfare state, has not produced any evidence of a different political dynamic across the generations.

Instead, our debate is shaped by many of the same realities as the rest of the UK: of the realities of a fragmented, disconnected society, cross-generational inequalities, and older, affluent voters worried about care costs, inheritance, and passing monies to their children.

Behind much of these concerns are deterministic, fatalistic assumptions about the state of politics and society, of the power and self-interests of winners, and numerous anxieties and worries people have about monies, security and status.

Increasingly British politics have become about a narrow set of discussions, from not alienating elites and vested interests, and those of the engaged, entitled Baby Boomer generation.

There is a problem with this version of events. It is a linear projection of the future that will just continue along the lines of the generational wars of the present projected into the future. This is the dominant way societies now think of their politics, economics and the future.

This version of future possibilities never turns out to be the way of things, with cracks already appearing. For a start, generational issues are driven by demographics. The Baby Boomers were shaped by their rising numbers, wealth and assets; and in the future, the increasing birth rate, population, and pressure on public services in the UK and Scotland, will change the terms of much of this debate.

Thatcher’s and Blair’s children will not be the last word on generational politics. After the politics of the self and individual self-interest, new dynamics will emerge about how people best weigh up the balance between personal and collective values.

The next generational definitions could be Cameron’s, Miliband’s or Salmond’s children, but what we do now is that the generational politics of the future will not just be a hyper-charged, turbo-capitalism version of today.

Scotland has a chance with the independence debate to alter the terms of the debate. The politics of individualism and inequality over the last few decades have distorted the public life of the UK and Scotland.

Older people feel as net beneficiaries of public spending and welfare that they have a stake in the system, and for younger people to engage, feel recognised and connected, they have to believe they have a similar connection, both when they are young and over the course of their lives.

That requires that the Scottish debate explicitly talk about a different welfare system, and set of relationships between citizen and state, to the parsimonious, punitive set of attitudes on offer from Westminster.

The British welfare state and political system has turned its back on young people and the poor, a product of the dysfunctional society we live in. This has impacted on Scottish attitudes and beliefs as well, but there is a huge opportunity to recognise this and do things differently.

From ‘Generation Self’ to’ ‘the Saltire Generation’ perhaps. For that to happen young people have to find their collective voice more, and not put up with the bland political choices of mainstream politics, and challenge more the status quo which marginalises and takes them for granted.