Laurie Penny: I’ve turned 25, but the world won’t let me be a grown-up

We are old enough and ugly enough to build a better future for ourselves.

It happens without warning. At some point between the first time you hear an ironic remix of the cartoon theme tunes of your childhood and the expiration of your Young Person's Railcard, you wake up one morning and something has changed. Under the puppy fat and pimples, your face has begun to emerge, and so has your future. You have become, however inadvertently, an adult.

By the time I finish this column, I will be 25 years old. Growing up is always an odd process, but since I graduated from university, it has become more convoluted than usual. For many people my age -- including most of my friends -- secure, meaningful employment, marriage and home ownership all seem as distant and unimaginable as they were when we sat our GCSEs.

While we've been finding our first wrinkles and filling out our first dole forms, all the normal things that were supposed to make up for theuncomfortable position of suddenly having to take care of oneself have been confiscated by the forces of world finance. Little lifelines like the Future Jobs Fund and the Education Maintenance Allowance have been cut to save costs, just as university fees have been trebled by an administration happy to hand billions in subsidies to the investment banks that created the crisis.

The impetus behind this year's uprisings in Egypt has been partly ascribed to the frustration of young adults unable to afford the transition into work, marriage and independence.

It's tempting to frame all this as a generation war, an immense and predictable kick-off between the baby boomers, who enjoyed every benefit that the postwar consensus brought its fortunate children, and Generation Y, the ragtag, loosely defined group of late-cold-war babies who are old enough to have been promised a future of permanent growth and young enough to have been shafted when that future failed to emerge. This interpretation is madly convenient for many who would prefer not to engage with the realities of geopolitics. It is also wrong.

It is wrong because it allows the enormous crisis of capital and democracy sweeping Europe, the US and the Middle East to be reconfigured as an intercontinental temper tantrum. With a bit of imagination, it's easy to see all the strikes, protests, riots and revolutions accompanying the disintegration of late capitalism as merely the international equivalent of a bedroom door slammed in fury -- a worldwide whine of: "It's not fair!"

In fact, it's a little more complicated than that. Property, privilege and profit are not the sole preserve of the "power generation" now easing its way into precarious retirement.

Disaster capitalism

There are baby boomers who have lived all their lives in poverty, and baby boomers who were marching, striking and fighting against the numbing tide of disaster capitalism when today's activists were still in nappies; just as there are members of Generation Y who'd take a Jack Wills hoodie and a job at Goldman Sachs over global revolution any day.

Something larger and far more frightening is going on. The struggle going on across the world is not between old and young, but between the possessed and the dispossessed -- most of whom just happen, like 52 per cent of the world's population, to be under the age of 30.

Three years ago, I turned 22 just as the world's stock markets were tumbling. Watching the news, I realised, like so many other middle-class young people in the west, that the future we had been promised would not be delivered after all, at least not without a fight that would finish far too late.

For many of us, it is already too late. Denied the trappings of adulthood, we grew up anyway, into unemployment, anger and disillusion, into a world that didn't want us.

When I was 22, I was angry. Now that I've been 25 for a whole ten minutes, I'm still angry, but I'm also hopeful. All around me, and across the world, people are organising, educating themselves, building new, alternative communities, joining resistance movements, and starting to talk about the possibility of a future that our parents never expected.

Fed up with waiting for a better future to be delivered, we have realised that we are old enough and ugly enough to build one for ourselves. It's not a generation war -- but the power generation has every reason to be frightened.

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

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?

Getty
Show Hide image

There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.