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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The City of London was never the same after the "Big Bang"

Michael Howard reviews Iain Martin's new book on the legacy of the financial revolution 30 years on.

We are inundated with books that are, in effect, inquests on episodes of past failure, grievous mistakes in policy decisions and shortcomings of leadership. So it is refreshing to read this lively account of a series of actions that add up to one of the undoubted, if not undisputed, successes of modern ­government action.

Iain Martin has marked the 30th anniversary of the City’s Big Bang, which took place on 27 October 1986, by writing what he bills as the inside story of a financial revolution that changed the world. Yet his book ranges far and wide. He places Big Bang in its proper context in the history of the City of London, explaining, for example, and in some detail, the development of the financial panics of 1857 and 1873, as well as more recent crises with which we are more familiar.

Big Bang is the term commonly applied to the changes in the London Stock Exchange that followed an agreement reached between Cecil Parkinson, the then secretary of state for trade and industry, and Nicholas Goodison, the chairman of the exchange, shortly after the 1983 election. The agreement provided for the dismantling of many of the restrictive practices that had suited the cosy club of those who had made a comfortable living on the exchange for decades. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the changes made in the early 1980s that equipped the City of London to become the world’s pre-eminent centre of international capital that it is today.

But it was not the only one. There was the decision early in the life of the Thatcher government to dismantle foreign-exchange restrictions, as well as the redevelopment of Docklands, which provided room for the physical expansion of the City (which was so necessary for the influx of foreign banks that followed the other changes).

For the first change, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, at the Treasury at the time, deserve full credit, particularly as Margaret Thatcher was rather hesitant about the radical nature of the change. The second was a result of Michael Heseltine setting up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which assumed planning powers that were previously in the hands of the local authorities in the area. Canary Wharf surely would not exist today had that decision not been made – and even though the book gives a great deal of well-deserved credit to the officials and developers who took up the baton, Heseltine’s role is barely mentioned. Rarely is a politician able to see the physical signs of his legacy so clearly. Heseltine would be fully entitled to appropriate Christopher Wren’s epitaph: “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.”

These changes are often criticised for having opened the gates to unbridled capitalism and greed and Martin, while acknow­ledging the lasting achievements of the new regime, also explores its downside. Arguably, he sometimes goes too far. Are the disparities in pay that we now have a consequence of Big Bang? Can it be blamed for the increase in the pay of footballers? This is doubtful. Surely these effects owe more to market forces, in the case of footballers, and shortcomings in corporate governance, in the case of executive pay. (It will be interesting to see whether the attempts by the current government to address the latter achieve the desired results.)

Martin deals with the allegation that the changes brought in a new world in which moneymaking could be given full rein without the need to abide by any significant regulation. This is far from the truth. My limited part in bringing about these changes was the responsibility I was handed, in my first job in government, for steering through parliament what became the Financial Services Act 1986. This was intended to provide statutory underpinning for a system of self-regulation by the various sectors of the financial industry. It didn’t work out exactly as I had intended but, paradoxically, one of the main criticisms of the regulatory system made in the book is that we now have a system that is too legalistic. Rather dubious comparisons are made with a largely mythical golden age, when higher standards of conduct were the order of the day without any need for legal constraints. The history of insider dealing (and the all-too-recently recognised need to legislate to make this unlawful) gives the lie to this rose-tinted picture of life in the pre-Big Bang City.

As Martin rightly stresses, compliance with the law is not enough. People also need to take into account the moral implications of their conduct. However, there are limits to the extent to which governments can legislate on this basis. The law can provide the basic parameters within which legal behaviour is to be constrained. Anything above and beyond that must be a matter for individual conscience, constrained by generally accepted standards of morality.

The book concludes with an attempt at an even-handed assessment of the likely future for the City in the post-Brexit world. There are risks and uncertainties. Mercifully, Martin largely avoids a detailed discussion of the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and its effect on “passporting”, which allows UK financial services easy access to the European Economic Area. But surely the City will hold on to its pre-eminence as long as it retains its advantages as a place to conduct business? The European banks and other institutions that do business in London at present don’t do so out of love or affection. They do so because they are able to operate there with maximum efficiency.

The often rehearsed advantages of London – the time zone, the English language, the incomparable professional infrastructure – will not go away. It is not as if there is an abundance of capital available in the banks of the EU: Europe’s business and financial institutions cannot afford to dispense with the services that London has to offer. As Martin puts it in the last sentences of the book, “All one can say is: the City will survive, and prosper. It usually does.”

Crash Bang Wallop is not flawless. (One of its amusing errors is to refer, in the context of a discussion of the difficulties faced by the firm Slater Walker, to one of its founders as Jim Walker, a name that neither Jim Slater nor Peter Walker, the actual founders, would be likely to recognise.) Yet it is a thoroughly readable account of one of the most important and far-reaching decisions of modern government, and a timely reminder of how the City of London got to where it is now.

Michael Howard is a former leader of the Conservative Party

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood