Cameron's housing benefit proposals are part of an ongoing redefinition of adulthood

PM continuing is a trend of assuming people in their twenties are still basically teenagers.

This isn't just about welfare. It isn't just about saving public money. It certainly isn't just about the feckless and workshy breeding on the state. David Cameron's desire to remove housing benefit from (almost) everyone below the age of 25 might be evidence – depending on where you're coming from politically – of populism, of the re-emergence of the "Nasty Party" or of some long-overdue tough love. But I would put it in a wider social context. I would ask: why it is happening now?

Cameron says that he wants to tackle a culture of dependence upon the state. What he seems to want to replace it with is dependence of children upon their parents well into what most would consider adulthood. He praises the couples who live (usually apart) in the family home until they can afford to put down a deposit on a house, a dream which may be forever beyond many of today's young people. He damns those who start their families early, before they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their offspring through their wages alone.

Of course, the rhetoric contrasts the feckless unemployed "scrounger" with the "responsible" twentysomething (or perhaps even thirtysomething) who works all day and then comes home to Mum and Dad. As the prime minister must be well aware, however, the majority of housing benefit claimants are in work. And that includes those who are under the age of 25. The benefit bill has mushroomed because rising house prices and rent levels have prevented an increasing number of working people from affording homes without help, whether that help comes from the state, from parental loans or from the ability to live in the parental home effectively rent-free.

In such a generationally skewed market, housing benefit might well be seen more as an aid to achieving independence and adulthood than as a form of dependence upon the state. To be able to leave the family home is a prerequisite to being able to travel to find work. It thus encourages self-reliance, self-esteem and a spirit of positive engagement with the world. Conversely, being forced to stay at home in adult life risks inculcating fatalism, depression and social as well as geographical immobility. Not to mention social friction, embarrassment, sexual frustration (not all parents are happy for even their adult children to sleep with partners in the family home), resentment and a sense of failure.

The true purpose of a safety net is not just to catch people when they fall, but to give them the confidence to jump. 

Of course it's unfair that some young families are accommodated with the help of the state while other young people cannot afford to leave home and start families of their own. I can see how this can lead to resentment. But it's hard to see how unfairness is eliminated by making things unfair for everyone. What is needed is a properly thought-out strategy for putting housing within the reach of younger people who don't work for investment banks or have trust funds to fall back on.

As I suggested at the beginning, though, this is about more than just housing benefit. To propose 25 as a qualifying age for help with rent is to imply that, whatever their circumstances, anyone below that age is not really an adult. In effect, it is to extend the concept of adolescence into the mid-twenties. It is to say that under-25s are too young for responsibility, too young to have lives and children of their own. Twentysomething pregnancy is the new teenage pregnancy and poorly-paid young workers are the new NEETs. Cameron's latest proposal does not exist in a vacuum. Recent years have seen such nonsenses as "Challenge 25", a draconian response to the declining "problem" of underage drinking that subjects people of clearly legal age to the ritual humiliation of producing ID at supermarket checkouts. One might note the demographic category of 18-25 itself, originally a marketing tool that assumes that people in their twenties are still basically teenagers. Indeed, it has increasingly been supplanted an 18-34 demographic, truly an ominous sign.

A society in which mass higher education is the norm is going to think rather differently about growing up than one in which most children leave school at 16 and enter the labour market. But the biggest contributory factor to delayed-onset adulthood is surely economic: the accumulation of capital in the older generation. The middle aged and the elderly have all the money and most of the power. This is not necessarily good news for them. The flip-side of extended adolescence is extended parenthood. To force younger people to live at home is also to force middle-aged people to continue to fund and support their offspring. If adult children are unable to begin their independent lives, their parents are equally unable to resume theirs.


The changes to housing benefit will see children move back in with parents. Photograph: Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation