Laurie Penny on Generation Y and the Baby Booomers: Generation why?

Baby boomer apologetics aren't enough for young people who've been robbed of what is rightfully theirs.

"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 entitled It's All Their Fault, is one of a clutch of works to have emerged this year that analyse the socio-economic crisis facing today's young people. Books like David Willetts' The Pinch and Radical Future, published by the journal Soundings, are easing into motion the rusty gears of generational conflict -- and not a moment too soon.

After the crash of autumn 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 and teachers, everything was definitely not going to be fine. Instead, 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. 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 of these books concentrate on pointing fingers at the Baby Boomer generation, currently in their 50s and 60s, who enjoyed free higher education, generous welfare, good jobs and great music, and grew up to own a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth of the nation. David Willetts's 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. But 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 member of the Conservative cabinet in a fortnight's time, advocates a return to traditional gender norms, particularly marriage. He 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 swing voters in marginal 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 the stagnation of social mobility, but also the loss of socialism and social democracy as alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy. Judt reminds us that "[m]uch 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."

Like Willetts, Judt is himself a Baby Boomer. Both men are personally wealthy and successful, at least by the standards of a generational cohort for whom home ownership and meaningful work are distant dreams. And even Judt's otherwise readable book occasionally lapses into half-hearted apologism of the sort that has become a hallmark of privileged Baby Boomer commentary on the "Lost Generation", who are denied the space or the 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 experiences of growing up under New Labour. 19-year-old Clare Coatman's assessment of her "Blairite education" and Noel Hatch's analysis of youth unemployment stand out in particular. However, the contributions -- 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 coming general 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," he declares -- but such panicked generational doom-mongering is unhelpful to those young people at the sharp end 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 timebomb 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 presenting young people with a coherent manifesto for our social and political inheritance, contemporary analysis tends to lapse into either 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.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism