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Laurie Penny: Why does my generation seem so spineless?

The baby boomers could risk rebellion. Not so for Generation Y.

When I closed the final pages of Francis Beckett's new book, What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?, I found myself shaking with indignation. The book, which lays out an incisive case for how my parents' generation “squandered the good times” and betrayed the courage of the Attlee settlement, is flawed and uneven in many ways, but it makes at least one important observation.

“The Sixties generation,” says Beckett, “reinstalled the deference it rejected.” In other words, our mums and dads were free to get angry with adults, dabble in revolutionary politics and demand respect and attention, but heaven help Generation Y if we fail to comply with the grown-ups’ view of the world.

When I look at the defeated deference with which my generation treats its elders, I want to take young people by their collective shoulders and give them a good shake.

The young are in the process of being screwed over in a variety of cold and creative ways by an age group that is richer, freer and more powerful than any generation this country has seen or is likely to see again, and yet we have so far failed to come up with any sort of collective response to indignities that the baby boomers simply would not have stood for when they were young.

It’s conceivable that our parents love us, in their own special way, but that hasn't stopped them from mortgaging our futures and selling off all the privileges that they took for granted -- the jobs, the safe places to live, the affordable housing, the free education and the security of a generous and supportive welfare state.

That our parents had all of these things allowed them to produce a sustained cultural rebellion which was, in many ways, genuinely socially transformative. That we have none of them makes us timid, compliant and tragically quick to accept compromise.

I find myself dying a little inside, for example, whenever I hear a bright young liberal telling me that they're supporting Ed Miliband for Labour leader. I have nothing against him, but that's just the problem: the most decisive thing I've heard said about him by the next generation of the British left is that they've nothing against him.

When I ask them why, they generally look awkward, mumble something about progressive ideas, and then say: "He's a nice guy, and he’s quite good on the environment, he’s a good compromise for Labour supporters from across the spectrum, and, hey, he wasn’t around to vote in favour of the Iraq war."

And then they do that awful little smile, that hard, tight little smile forced up at the corners with those wide, willing eyes -- the smile of submission and desperation, the expression I've seen on young people's faces so many times since the credit crisis crunched down on our futures, the expression I've worn myself at countless job interviews, and they say: "And at least he's not as bad as any of the others."

When our parents were young, Beckett reminds us, some of them not only dared to imagine alternatives to militarism, but demonstrated to demand a politics that reflected their ideals rather than those of the overculture. By contrast, I was there when this video, which features prominently on Miliband Jr’s campaign website, was being shot.

Wait for the final three seconds: the young volunteer does the smile, and then delivers the line "Go, Ed" as mournfully as if he were speaking at a memorial service for a spirit of generational rebellion that crumpled at some point in the mid-1990s and inoffensively, quietly died.

Why does my generation seem so spineless? Fear is the reason, rather than lack of fervour. We all know what’s going on, but we blanch at asking for the rights and respect that our parents enjoyed because we’ve all seen what happened to those of our classmates and university friends who refused to play the game, who didn’t smile on cue, pass the exams every year and give the grown-ups what they wanted.

For the baby boomers, as Beckett astutely observes, the risks of rebellion were far lower than they are for us: rejecting your parents’ rules is far easier when you can rely on full employment, a supportive welfare state, free higher education and a culture that respects and nurtures young talent to catch you when you fall through the net.

Both of my parents were working-class kids who left school during their A-levels, and both are now wealthy, property-owning professionals, as are many of their friends who spent the 1970s doing drugs, playing music and rearranging the world to suit their ideals.

How many of today’s impoverished dropouts will be able to say the same in 40 years? “We were young in a kinder society,” Beckett pronounces of his generation. “If we really meant any of the things we said in the Sixties, about peace, about education, about freedom, we would have created a better world for our children to grow up in.”

Today’s young people decline to reject our parents openly, because most of us have no other option, but we know perfectly well that we’ve been had. Whether or not we continue to bite off our resentment behind forced smiles is up to us.

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

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.