Wednesday 28 April 2010

Dispatches from the Same Old + Staggers on generational angst

I'm not very around at the moment, as I'm dealing with a new job and juggling work and book deadlines whilst trying my hardest not to be evicted from my house. But: recent weeks have seen an avalanche of books come out about 'generational' things and how it's all gone wrong for Generation Y, woe and angst and blame the immigrants not the banks. After the predictable panic about argh-I've-got-nothing-relevant-left-to-write-for-this-book, I wrote this article for New Statesman about the epistemology of the trend. David Willetts is the peculiar sort of smiling, avuncular fascist who begins by making you feel cosy and understood and then explains, gently, why it's all because of the women and the blacks. All the links are worth a click: Radical Future and It's All Their Fault are particularly important and, predictably, as they're the ones actually written by people who are vaguely young, they're available to download for free in black, white and pixellated neo-Soviet slogans. Yeah, screw you, Peter Mandelson!


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.


  1. I'm 25, and I feel pretty disenfranchised in modern Britain, but I always took the view that "blame the boomers!" was as transparent a divide-and-conquer tactic as "blame the immigrants!". Whichever one you pick, the bourgeoisie conveniently avoid attention.

    There are plenty of Boomers who haven't benefitted from Thatcherism, not least those who believed that authoritarian policing and scarce welfare would lead to low crime rates and a nationwide entrepreneurial spirit.

    They should be persuaded, not confronted. If there's a fight, they'll win. Diplomacy is the best we can play our meagre hand.

    Still, great post as always. Cheers!

  2. '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.'

    When are we going to realise that not every issue that affects us will be reflected at the polls? I can see where you're coming from but please, understand that in a democracy, flawed as ours is, not everyone will get what they want. I would like a bigger wealth distribution, higher taxes for businesses earning more than £100,000 p.a., faith schools being paid for by the group to which they cater, a less rigid curriculum in schools. The list goes on and on. If I only get one of those policies, does it mean that everythin's f****d? No, it means that we have to work harder. Those of us who work in the public sector are not sitting on our laurels waiting for the manna to fall from heaven, we're going out there and getting it. Simple as that.

    And as for your column in the NS, brilliant. Many thanks. C'mon, Generation Y, there're still some people around who believe in you and trust you.

  3. SATs are the quintessential institution of a system so obsessed with constant measurement and quantification that it gets everything the wrong way round, destroying education in the process.

    The government were so controlling and mistrustful in their management of education they squeezed the life out of it. They had such a need to regulate that they excluded the possibility of organic creativity, let alone genuine learning, or the possibility that one size does not fit all.

    Coatman's bit here is very much on the mark. My year were the ones who first suffered almost every one of New Labour's experiments and desperate pre-election sops, with one result being that we spent five solid years doing almost nothing but exam papers and getting no answers when we asked what the hell was happening next year.

    And, of course, it eroded the sense of proportion, and trust in what the school would tell you. Every paper was the most important thing that ever was or ever would be, and failure would mean a life consigned to the gutter trading sexual favours for pasties. Then when you'd finished that one it was forgotten, and next month's test would define the very nature of your soul. It put people off education for years, possibly for life. I got sick of the constant cramming and practice papers so quickly that come the real thing, I got lower marks in my year 9 SATS than I did in year 6. I'm only glad that I was old enough to get out before it got worse. And don't even get me started on the nonsense the teachers have to put up with.

    Excellently, or should I say depressingly, it also echoes what Philip Pullman said in about 2003 (it's on his website I believe, under "Isis lecture"), and even more excellently/depressingly, what H.G. Wells said in The New Machiavelli in 1911. The culture of our education system will do harm to this country for years to come.

  4. '... we are going to spend our lives paying for our parents' excesses, who have bequeathed us a broken economy, a stagnant job market and a planet that's increasingly on fire.'

    I thought part of the point was precisely that it wasn't our parents' excesses, altogether, though. I mean, if you look at various articles on Cif, for example, there is a whole host of deeply resentful single people of all ages whinging on about having to pay taxes to support people with families. A lot of it seems to be a general mentality of 'me me me' (I mean come on, how many of the bankers that fucked us over have kids, or kids that are our ages?).

    I realise you were probably just using a figure of speech, but I know that for my parents (though we don't get along great), that is absolutely not true. I only hope I can learn to skimp and save and constantly deny myself even tiny pleasures like they did, in order to give any potential spawn a future.

  5. *Whispers*

    Don't want to *, but have a brief, miserable musing here.

  6. @KJB

    I haven't noticed much of that above the line, but CiF's commenters are defined by their entitled selfish whining.

    You can understand the resentment more or less though - if a couple can afford to settle down and start a family on only one income, they're already financially and socially richer than a large majority of young single people. Why could they possibly be more deserving of a tax break than a single person on minimum wage?

  7. Gwyn - That was what I meant (below the line), and it's not necessarily on articles about tax breaks - those sorts of comments pop up on ANYTHING remotely to do with parenthood, also frequently on threads about climate change. Nor is it necessarily to do with 'if a couple who can afford to settle down and start a family on only one income' - they spout that bile at single parents too.

    The future is really depressing because my parents, as I was saying, had a very strong work ethic and ability to deny themselves (very stereotypically Indian!). My mum never treated herself at all when I was growing up and of course I thought nothing of it then, but now it makes me feel hideously guilty. She still sees buying shoes that are comfortable as a treat - aaargh. My parents never went out to eat, never went on holiday (though Dad would go to India to fulfil various family and religious obligations), never went to the cinema... Their only little pleasure is tea.

    I have nothing like their determination and self-control, AND a load of debt, climate chaos, etc. as listed above, to deal with.

  8. Post your opinion after this would be election.Who paid for your education,old talk from a ruling thought.Sad that say who as socialists,must be the time.

  9. Hello Penny.

    Came here from the Grauniad.

    So, English degree, huh? I got an English degree from Cambridge, in 1985. In the expectation that it would be harder to market myself with this than with a numerate degree, I spent my third year focused on getting a job rather than getting a degree.

    If this was an obvious precaution to take then, when Cambridge graduate unemployment a year on was only about 15%, it should have been even more obvious now, I'd have thought. You go to university to learn how to think. If you can't do that with your B.A (Oxon), what can you do, exactly?

    If it is true that, as you were quoted as saying in the Grauniad, "It is hard to think of anybody who graduated with me in 2008 who has a job," this bespeaks staggering complacency. At what point did you start thinking about your job prospects and doing something about it? Did you found or run any university societies? Did you consider switching to a more marketable degree? Did you do any structured thinking about why your degree might make you a useful hire and how to sell yourself?

    If you did none of those things, why would anyone hire you?

  10. @ Justice4Rinka

    "...this bespeaks staggering complacency"

    I think you're being unduly harsh, and your tone seems to presuppose the answer to your questions will all be no.

  11. What, our debt is our education.Is there any compassion.Geez a job.

  12. If you don't half kill yourself in order to make every aspect of your life justifiable in market terms then "this bespeaks staggering complacency".

  13. sinister agent1 May 2010 at 00:39

    @ Justice4Rinka

    I don't wish to get personal, but have you considered that not everyone actually has an interest in running some tedious society, and fewer still actually have time? I can't speak for everyone of course, but most students I've dealt with spent their study time, y'know, studying. Learnin' and shit. That or shoehorning a shop job in wherever it'll fit.

    You've pretty strongly implied that you neglected your degree in order to boff up for a job. That's not what everyone goes to university for - indeed, arguably the opposite should be the case, particularly now, when it's cost tens of thousands of pounds, and a lower grade could be the difference between a reasonable wage and sneaking into the canteen to steal biscuits for tomorrow's breakfast.

    While it may be more 'obvious' to do those things to make yourself more employable, it's also more commonplace (even biology undergrads are given courses on writing CVs now - pushing universities as glorified recruitment centres has been a prevailing notion for the better part of a decade), and far less effective.

    Far be it for me to judge, but you had a degree from one of the most famous and prestigious institutions in the world. Yours was hardly a common situation, and it was 25 years ago anyway. Education isn't the same place anymore, and jobhunting, well christ, don't get me started. It's a bloody farce.

  14. Justice4Rinka1 May 2010 at 11:13

    Interesting reactions.

    Oliver, I didn't suggest that anyone "half kill yourself in order to make every aspect of your life justifiable in market terms". It was Penny who was apparently aggrieved that, despite having an English degree from Oxford, she didn't have a job. I'm observing that the connection has never been so simple.

    Sinister Agent, you have missed the point. Nowadays, I recruit graduates. All this stuff about you're busy, you've no time - yes, yes. Heard it all before, and we hired the others instead of you.

    I can tell you from this side of the process that anyone who doesn't have "an interest in running some tedious society" is self-nominating to be filtered out at a very early stage. If you've done nothing in three years but your degree, all that tells us is that you got good A-levels.

    Unfortunately we know A-Levels are a bit useless too, so we have to look at other things. If there are no other things about you to look at, bye-bye.

    If you claim you have no extramural interests because you didn't have time, we don't believe you. You spent every hour with your nose to the grindstone? Unlikely, and even if true, it just means you're poor at managing your time, and that's another reason not to hire you.

    As for your point that "a lower grade could be the difference between a reasonable wage and sneaking into the canteen", that's simply not how graduate recruitment works, now or ever. The milk round starts in the autumn term. It is when the majority of graduate jobs are filled.

    Those who choose to focus only on their degree may get a better class of degree as a result. But they won't know this till August or September and are then left looking for a job among those vacancies that are left, or for the following year. And there, they are up against the year below them, who do have extramural interests, they did find the time, they didn't leave it till year three to do most of the work, etc.

    If at that point there are no jobs left, what's the use of your First then? What if all you got was a 2:1, same as everybody who also had other achievements and interests to talk about?

    All this was obvious to my generation at the start of Year Two, and you did something about it starting right then. You can't fatten the pig on market day.

    The utility of your degree is in any case not necessarily related to degree class. English graduates, f'rex, have some highly work-relevant skills and habits. Most obviously, English graduates are used to minimal supervision, figuring out what their objectives should be, prioritising between urgent versus merely important tasks, looking several years ahead, and then getting on with it all without having their hand held.

    No science graduate can say the same. They have everything planned and laid on for three years. As a result, when I ask one to display some creativity in problem-solving, they look hunted, they look nervous, and if I ask them if they have any questions, their first question is always "What's the answer?" because that's how they've been schooled.

    If you just think "it's a bloody farce" it'll be you who's the loser. The time to change the world is when you're running it. Go to work.

  15. Hi Penny

    Great to see that the 'Baby Boomers' have produced some brilliant young feminists, at least! I agree with most of what you are all saying but....

    Being a single Mother (how can a Mother be plural?)in the 80s, in my thirties, I definitely didn't benefit/profit by the Thatcher years. Quite the opposite, I lost my lovely family home, as I was on short term teaching contracts and trying to bring up my two daughters at the same time.

    Amongst other quite horrid experiences, whilst heavily pregnant with my second daughter I was subjected to a panel of 'men-in-suits' at a housing dept to explain why I'd fallen behind with my rent payments and was threatened with eviction. Although I fought my case, after leaving the interrogation, I broke down in tears at the unfairness of everything, when all I'd done was become pregnant. I have many, many other stories like this.

    All the above is in the past and my 2 daughters are now very successful individuals in their late 20s and early 30s. They are proud of calling themselves feminists and have had all the same opportunities in education/employment choices as males. However, they too have student loans to repay and have realised that, despite what feminism has achieved, once you/they/she become(s) a Mother, it all changes and you/they/she just cannot 'have it all'- even though you deserve it. The ambivalent emotion of Motherhood is always in place - you/they/she will never be quite 'good enough'...especially if you want a fulfilling/successful career.

    Many times people have said to me: 'but it was worth it, wasn't it?'........I lost out career-wise and financially but my Daughters define who 'I' am and, I guess, me them as my own Mother, who recently died, definitely defined who 'I' was/am also....but we all deserve(d) 'to have it all'. We didn't. My Mother didn't, I didn't and my Girls are realising that they can't.

    Do you? Have 'things' changed for the better Girls? I really hope so, 'cos I'm guessing your Mothers wish this with all their hearts.

    Keep the blog going Girls. Thank you for listening/reading.


  16. "Judt, like Willetts, is himself a Baby Boomer. Both men are extremely personally wealthy and successful"

    Penny, are you not aware that Judt is dying of motor neurone disease? That doesn't exempt his work from criticism, of course, but it seems a bit odd to tick him off for being 'privileged'. I don't think many people would want to swap places with him; I certainly wouldn't.

  17. Justice4Rinka

    You miss the point. It's not even *getting* the job - it's what happens next. A decade since graduating, a whole heap more responsibility, and I still earn barely more than I did then, but pay out *far* more to stay alive...

    Boom? What boom?

  18. Other anon poster

    I'm not sure that disease (which will surely come to all of us in some shape or form) or death negates privilege. He is better placed to cope with it than someone without his money or upbringing. He is still privileged.

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