Do your parents love you?” asks Neil Boorman. “Of course they do – but it hasn't stopped them from robbing you blind." Boorman's new book, gleefully titled It's All Their Fault, is part of a clutch of works that have emerged in recent weeks analysing the socio-economic crisis facing today’s young people. Books like David Willetts’ The Pinch and Compass and Soundings’ Radical Future are easing into motion the rusty gears of generational conflict – and none too soon.
After the crash of 2008, Generation Y realised with a rush of horror that no matter how good we were or how relentlessly we hammered our minds and bodies into the grooves laid out for us by our parents, our teachers and a culture of mandatory capitalist self-fashioning, everything was definitely not going to be fine. Instead, we are going to spend our lives paying for the excesses of our parents, who have bequeathed us a broken economy, a stagnant job market and a planet that’s increasingly on fire. This sudden understanding of just how blithely our future has been mortgaged has been festering for a full 18 months, and now a rash of books has broken out, angry and sore, across the body politic.
Most concentrate on pointing fingers at the Baby Boomer generation, currently in their 50s and 60s, who enjoyed free higher education, supportive welfare, good jobs and great music and grew up to own a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth of the nation. David Willetts' The Pinch, subtitled How the Baby Boomers Took their Children's Future - and How they can Give it Back, makes no bones about who is responsible for the plight of the young. However, rather than analysing the effect of the contraction of social mobility on the prospects and potential of Generation Y, Willetts, who hopes to be a key member of the Conservative cabinet in a fortnight's time, advocates a return to traditional gender norms, particularly marriage. Willetts prefers to blame the evils of “feminism” for the crisis, offering a decidedly atavistic assessment of Where It All Went Wrong that, one suspects, was written with middle-aged voters in swing seats in mind.
Unlike Willetts, Tony Judt at least deigns to address young people in Ill Fares The Land, which takes a far broader view of the political psychology of the young, analysing not just consumerism and stagnation of social mobility but the loss of socialism and classic liberalism as implicit alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy. Judt reminds us that “Much of what appears “natural” today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization, the growing disparities of rich and poor.”
Judt, like Willetts, is himself a Baby Boomer. Both men are extremely personally wealthy and successful, at least by the standards of a cohort of young people for whom home ownership and meaningful work are Sisyphean dreams. As such, even Judt’s pertinent, readable survey occasionally lapses into half-hearted apologism, of the sort that has become a hallmark of privileged Baby Boomer commentary on the so-called ‘Lost Generation,’ who are largely denied space or opportunity to answer back.
Radical Future, edited by Ben Little, attempts to create that space, with young people from a range of backgrounds contributing chapters on their authentic experiences of growing up under New Labour. Nineteen-year-old Clare Coatman’s assessment of her ‘Blairite education’ and Noel Hatch’s analysis of youth unemployment stand out in particular. However, the chapters - including my own on mental health - are limited by a sort of desperate worthiness that retreats from real radicalism. Only Boorman's book truly captures frustration of Generation Y at discovering that we have not only been taken for a ride, but are now expected to get out and push.
Boorman identifies the upcoming election as a generational last stand, despite the fact that no mainstream party is addressing young voters and the young themselves see only the opportunity to change the face of the grinning dad-a-like who will be mortgaging our prospects. “We have one chance to create change, and this is it,” declares Boorman – but such panicked generational doom-mongering is desperately unhelpful to those young people on the ground, at the sharp edge of the global recession, who are wondering where their future went.
It can only be good news for young people that commentators are beginning to notice the socio-economic time bomb we’ve been handed, but these books fail to offer Generation Y the one thing we need more than anything else – a long-view. Rather than addressing young people with any coherent manifesto for our social and political inheritance, contemporary analysis is lapsing into helpless rage or blithe apologism. Members of Generation Y already know that this is a terrible time to be young. What we need is the tools to imagine a better world.
The young people of Generation Y don’t need your pity, and we haven’t got time for a collective tantrum. We need to reclaim our social, political and economic inheritance, and we need to do it now. Raging into the void may be cathartic, but only a coherent radical framework will help us get what we want – which is our future back.