Why I don’t want to become part of the lost generation

Youth unemployment is scarring a whole cohort of young people.

My name is Ava Patel, I’m 23 and I have a degree in Journalism from Nottingham Trent University. After I graduated I spent over a year looking for jobs and I finally got one manning the phones in a call centre. I’ve not just been rejected for journalism jobs but for manual work too, including shelf-stacking at a well-known supermarket, despite being qualified and making all the effort to get the job. The most common reply I’d get to an email or an application form I’d spent about 45 minutes completing was “Due to the high number of applications your application has not been successful on this occasion. We cannot provide any feedback.” I read the same message so many times that when I finally got the call centre job, I was over the moon. I’d often get advisors at the Job Centre whilst I was claiming Job Seekers Allowance asking me why I was even there, to which I’d simply reply, “can’t get a job.”

Countless rejections without feedback started to chip away at my confidence but when I found out other graduates were struggling to find employment too, I realised it was less to do with me and more to do with the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs for young people. We are becoming the lost generation, there are over a million of us searching for work. We do have qualifications, work experience and drive, but we do not have the jobs to apply them to.

I finally got a position to work to raise awareness of youth unemployment as part of this year’s Channel 4’s Battlefront Campaign to tackle youth unemployment. I’ve had the opportunity to attend the Lib Dem Conference and the recent Channel 4 News Class of 2012 event hosted by Jon Snow, with contributions across the political spectrum, from MPs Damian Collins, Stella Creasy, David Milliband and Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King. While the debate was heated and passionate, not enough solutions were put forward. The Youth Contract only goes so far and all the goodwill behind work experience, training and apprenticeships schemes does not lead to job creation. We can have all the work experience in the world, but it won’t help us if there isn’t a paid, full time job at the end of it. We as young people need long term job creation, not more initiatives that provide short term solutions.

When I got the job to be a Battlefront campaigner it felt like my hard work and persistence had paid off. It almost felt surreal to think someone out there wanted to employ me, wanted to see all I had to offer. Part of Channel 4’s education output, this year Battlefront is focussing on the single most important issue facing young people today – the fact that over one million 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK today, according to the Office of National Statistics, are without a job. Youth unemployment is no longer a problem, but a disaster. And this is exactly what I said in the interview process. Along with three other campaigners we’re raising awareness of the issue on camera and online and my aim is to get young peoples’ voices heard. For too long employers and politicians have been calling young people job shy and lazy but for the vast majority of us this simply isn’t true. My ultimate aim is to speak to politicians about how they can provide solutions to make the labour market more accessible to young people. The current government’s answers to youth unemployment via the Work Programme and Youth Contract do not guarantee jobs and do not offer a sustainable long term solution. We lose £5bn per year in taxes and the economy loses £10bn per year in economic output because young people aren’t working [pdf], a crisis our country cannot afford, especially in the current economic climate.

In the past year alone youth unemployment has risen by 41 per cent (pdf) and it rose again this month. Young people like me, my friends and other Battlefront campaigners are suffering scarring effects of long-term unemployment and planning ahead for a life where we will never earn as much as previous generations. It’s no longer enough to give token gestures as we slowly lose our self-esteem, that’s not the tag line we want for the class of 2012.

Ava Patel is a Channel 4 Battlefront campaigner

A woman walks past a jobs board in Liverpool. Photograph: Getty Images
A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.