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What we talk about when we talk about millennials

When we speak about generational angst, we should not forget that we are really talking about class, and class expectations.

It has been eight years since the Great Recession, and the current economic crisis has become a permanent state of exception. Early this month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a damning report on prospects for young adults around the world. The condensed version is that we don’t have many.

For the so-called millennials, born between 1980 and 1994 and hitting adulthood just as the teeth of a global economic crisis closed around a technological revolution, the old “markers of adulthood” – secure paid work, living independently of your parents, buying a house, settling down, having children – are a vanishing dream.

It has been nearly six years since the student protests that preceded the Occupy movement. In 2011, the rallying cry around the world was the pained, almost pitiful question: “Where’s our future?” The future that had been stolen was a story – in this case, the middle-class fairy tale that if you just work hard, keep your head down and make good choices, you’ll get a decent job and be able to raise a family, and possibly have enough left over for a holiday somewhere where they grill fresh-caught sardines on the beach. I read about that once in the Guardian’s Life and Style section, and it sounded nice.

This generational conversation is, of course, deeply middle class. The most middle-class thing about it is the way it tries to avoid the fact that it’s all about the existential angst of being middle class.

It’s about expectations. Specifically, it’s about the chasm between people’s expectations and their concrete prospects. And because it’s about expectations, it is less relevant both to those who grew up learning not to hope for too much and to those who grew up expecting to inherit a small property empire. Those in between, however, still make up the bulk of the population, and it’s worth discussing their mercurial collective politics openly.

Most of the middle-class and working-class millennials I know are stuck in a sort of weary holding pattern, moving from one temporary or part-time job to the next, one cheap flatshare to the next. Over time, they have realised that this holding pattern will not let go any time soon.

Anxiety has become the defining disorder of our generation. My own anxiety disorder is as much of a millennial accessory as my smartphone and my skinny jeans. In the past five years, because of the staggering rises in rent, I’ve lived in eight different house-shares in London, not including extended periods of couch-surfing and a few weeks when I moved back in with my dad. I’ve filed many of these columns from the road, or from temporary, mould-infested bedrooms where I hadn’t even bothered to unpack. I’m almost 30 and I’ve never owned a stick of furniture, apart from a second-hand futon I got on Freecycle in 2009 and promptly had to abandon in the next move.

And I am lucky. I am very, very lucky. I’m one of the few people my age I know who has been continuously employed over the past few years and is making enough money not to stay up every night worrying about it.

One of the charges laid against “millennials” as a cohort is that we are immature, afraid of commitment, floundering in a ­self-indulgent state of permanent adolescence. Well, one young man living in his parents’ basement playing video games all day may be an indictment on his own life choices, but three million young men living in their parents’ basements are an indictment on society.

Of course we are afraid of commitment. Everything we’ve been encouraged to commit to has let us down. Most of us don’t stay in jobs for longer than two years. Many of us are one rent rise away from losing our home. It’s logical to be afraid of commitment in times like these. Today’s middle-class youngsters are finding out what the working class has always known – that without some sense of security, you cannot have commitment, because when everything might change overnight it’s safer to live with one eye open and one foot already out the door. They are outraged about this, and their parents are outraged on their behalf, because they expected something different.

Middle-class outrage is a political problem. If it is not contained and controlled, it will turn upwards, as the “striving” middle realises it has far more in common with the working class than it does with the rich. Frustration. Disappointment. A sense of being cheated. No prospect of setting up a home and family. These are the everyday household grievances of which explosive social situations are made. Riots, revolutions and runs on banks come about when those “hard-working families”, those anxious members of the “squeezed middle” that our governments love to talk about, ­realise they’ve been cheated and channel their outrage into action.

If social order is to be maintained, it is vital that the discontented, restless middle classes be taught both shame and suspicion. Shame, naturally, on their own account, for not being among the lucky few for whom social mobility is not honking into reverse gear. And suspicion of everyone less well off than they are, for when the self-loathing isn’t enough to keep the rage at bay.

That’s where this government’s endless attacks on welfare recipients, the disabled, the mentally ill and immigrants come in. It has never been about saving money. It’s about saving face.

Middle-class outrage has to be redirected, defanged into depression and anxiety, rerouted into ugly hostility towards anyone less lucky than we are. When we speak about generational angst, when we wring our hands over the plight of millennials, we should not forget that we are really talking about class, and class expectations.

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 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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