The scandal of the lost generation

Why are so many young people unable to get a job or a place at university?

A friend of mine has been rejected by the university of her choice, despite last week having achieved three As at A-level. What's going on?

In my Sunday Mirror column today, I write about this and about how there are nearly one million unemployed young people in Britain aged between 16 and 24, at least 100,000 of whom are graduates. We are grappling with the consequences of a demographic spike: a mini-baby boom at the end of the 1980s means that there are many more young people in Britain aged 20 than there are those aged ten or 30.

Because of high unemployment, especially among the young, and because of Labour's misguided top-down prescriptions and stipulations on student numbers, university applications are rising. But there aren't enough places to meet the demand. The result is that we are creating a "lost generation" of young people who cannot get a job or a place at university.

In addition, of course, many graduates are burdened by debt in the form of student loans -- read my estimable colleague Laurie Penny on this. It's as if we have set up a committee with the sole purpose of creating an education system that deliberately discriminates against the least well-off.

Why even aspire to go to university when you know you will leave in debt and then struggle to find a job afterwards? It's all right if you have rich parents to support you through your student years and then on through the restlessness and uncertainty that can follow. But only the fortunate few can say that.

Our system of educational apartheid, in which the richest 10 per cent or so buy themselves out of the state sector, is already the most unfair in Europe. The abolition of the grammar schools merely contributed to the unfairness, as the admirable Conservative MP Graham Brady understands. If you've got money, you can buy a good education in Britain and all the advantages that follow. If you haven't, good luck.

The move to create the new A-level grade of A* will further privilege the rich and discriminate against state schools. As Peter Wilby writes in this week's issue of the New Statesman magazine: "The proportion of exam candidates from fee-paying schools awarded an A* is at least three times higher than the proportion from state schools."

It is scandalous that, in its 13 years of power, New Labour did not abolish the charitable status of public schools. These schools are businesses, many of them with extensive landowning interests, and they should be taxed as such.

Now, against the backdrop of the great recession and because of the coming spending cuts, universities are sure to contract. Signs saying "We're full up" are being pinned to campus gates all over the country.

Pity the lost generation.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

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