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?

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.