How Do We Connect with the ‘Lost Generation’?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, November 26th 2011

The economic storm clouds are gathering and looking increasingly foreboding across Britain: rising unemployment, low to non-existent economic growth, rising debt levels and record youth unemployment.

The political ping-pong of Westminster and the Scottish Parliament seems nearly completely irrelevant to much of this showing a debate which is mostly dispiriting and irrelevant to the big economic questions.

We have to look seriously at the true nature of youth unemployment in the UK and across Europe. In the UK youth unemployment for those aged between 16-24 years is 21.9%; in Spain it is 45%, Greece 42.9%, Ireland 29.8%. The UK has 1.1 million young people not in education, employment or training (the so-called NEETs). Across the European Union 5.3 million young people are out of work, while overall 23 million in the EU are out of work.

A wider set of issues have hit young people and made many feel that government doesn’t really understand them. They have been hit by education cut backs, the removal of benefits, the rise in tuition fees to £9,000, and lack of affordable housing. Many government policies seem to be youth insensitive such as the abolition of the Futures Job Fund; the government has made a small u-turn this week and introduced a similar, smaller scheme, the ‘Youth Contract’.

Part of this is a generational chasm which needs to be factored. Young people don’t have much political muscle. They don’t join political parties, and they don’t turn out in elections. Students for example had a 50% turnout figure in last year’s UK election. Older working and retired people vote. Politicians fear ‘the grey vote’ and while they patronise and try to charm young people, they don’t fear them.

Our economy and society has also become more inhospitable to young people. The housing market and property bubble of the last decade has made the allure of a property owning democracy seem like a mirage to many; the average age of the first time buyer is 37 years and rising; and everything about the housing market and the lack of house building points to this getting worse.

We have moved from the world of Generation X and Y, of coolness and ‘slacker culture’ to the NINJA Generation – No Income, No Job or Assets.

This isn’t just about the Cameron cuts or Brown’s boom going to bust but longer-term trends. Put simply, young people have cast into the role of ‘outsiders’ in society by the way labour markets, business and society act towards them. Young people are now widely caricatured, demonised and portrayed as a threat to society. Most of all they have been let down by those who should know better, their elders.

Youth unemployment began rising in the UK in 2004 in the midst of the boom. Part of the reason for this fundamental change is a collapse in the generational contract. The baby boomers and many of the post-baby boomers have binged on conspicuous consumption, debt and assets.

The baby boomer generation, the ‘me’ generation have been shameless and unapologetic in their quest for instant gratification, short-termism and putting their pleasure above thoughts for others. Truly Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are spokespeople for this generation.

They have in the words of David Willetts, Conservative minister, ‘stolen their childrens’ future’. They have encouraged and nurtured a narcissistic, self-obsessed and sophistic set of attitudes which isn’t about right or left being too blame, as both are culpable, but all society. The left encouraged individual liberation in race, sex and gender, while the right advocated it in the marketplace, the City and shopping. Out went the old civic codes and traditions.

The mess we are in requires radical solutions which go beyond our present political categories. We have to somehow stop the long-term anti-industrial ethos which has permeated every part of Britain even when we were ‘the workshop of the world’. There has to be investment and encouragement of apprenticeships and trades. But we also have to change the way we do business and in a broader sense how we understand labour markets and economics.

The political debate has to transcend many of the simplicities which dominate things. We can’t let the main debate be between bashing bankers and blaming Gordon Brown’s debt mountain. Instead, we have to talk and come up with solutions for more intangible, complex issues such as how we rebuild the generational contract, and how we support people across the different ages and needs of their lives. Is it right for example as young people struggle in their late teens, twenties and into their thirties laden down with debt, that affluent older people keep all their benefits, TV licenses, winter allowances, bus passes and more?

There are interesting perspectives coming forward. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham has written a thoughtful book, ‘Out of the Ashes’, looking at how to tackle the issues raised by the summer riots. One of his propositions, and something he supported in government, is a ‘British civic service’ which would be compulsory for all young people and last six months.

Lammy states that, ‘Modern Britain needs more institutions on the lines of the Scouts, the Girl Guides, the Boys’ Brigades to ground youngsters in the habits of citizenship’. He argues that ‘participants should be paid the minimum wage to ensure this amounts to more than a glorified gap year.’

Some on the left will find Lammy’s proposal too radical, while many on the right want to use the crisis to further their dreams of a supply-side revolution. We have to think and act bold in the crisis we find ourselves in whether it is in the UK or European Union.

In the last thirty years British society has become more impatient and impetuous and has spent much of the prosperity of future generations. It isn’t right or progressive that the baby boomers sit on their assets, booty and entitlement culture and claim that it is the mark of a civilised society. Not while our young people struggle to gain the first ladders in life, whether it is a job, buying a house or starting a family.

Instead, we have to find the courage to redistribute assets, income and wealth from baby boomers to younger people. And for that to have any realistic chance of happening younger people are going to have to organise, get motivated and participate in politics as much as older people do. Otherwise we will be making a bitter, divided society which is not pleasant for anyone to live in, old or young.