Essay Competition winner: Has Britain robbed its children?

The winning entry from the New Statesman-Intergenerational Foundation A level essay competition.

In September, the New Statesman and the Intergenerational Foundation teamed up to run an essay competition for A level students. The topic was "has Britian robbed its children?" and the winning entry, by Conor Hamilton, is below.

A recent cover of the Spectator featured an indifferent teen being carried on the back of a speedy elderly man. The message is clear: young people are lazily relying on the old. One reason this narrative is so effective is that there is a widespread anxiety today’s children will not value and uphold the efforts of the generations that came before them. It plays on a fear that young people are not fulfilling their part of an intergenerational contract, preferring to live their lives selfishly. However, what if the breach of contract is the other way around? What if older generations have been living an unsustainably extravagant lifestyle, leaving little for those that will come after them?

The immediate evidence for this would be the UK’s national debt, which has increased from 34 per cent of GDP in 1991 to 90 per cent (pdf). This debt is so large that the interest we pay on it is roughly the same size as our defence budget. Unfortunately, the interest will only increase as our debt shifts to just short of 100 per cent of GDP, as it is predicted to have done by 2015 (pdf). It seems the taxpayers of tomorrow will be struggling with the debts of yesterday for a long time to come.

However, it is not only the profligacy of the last generation, commonly deemed synonymous with the previous Labour government, that will harm the young. The austerity measures pursued by today’s coalition are also unfairly weighted against young people. University funding and housing benefits for the young have been slashed, employment schemes have been abandoned and the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been scrapped in England. Meanwhile, pensioners are exempted from caps on housing benefit, pensions remain triple-locked and universal benefits such as winter fuel payments, free TV licenses and free bus passes, all remain untouched. None of those benefits existed 16 years ago. Strangely, the current deficit reduction plan shows little concern for those who will have to pay the money back.

It isn’t just governments that have acted irresponsibly. The past set of homeowners have done great damage as well. Aided by a tax-relief on mortgages and the sale of public housing, past generations found it relatively easy to make their first steps onto the property ladder. As a result, the market boomed and Britain developed a skewed economy. Martin Weale, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, found that if house prices had risen at the same rate as the stock market over the last 20 years, they would be 50 per cent cheaper today.

As a result, Britain’s homeowners have stopped investing in useful things like businesses, and have instead starting using their homes as an easy source of cash. Every time someone takes out a second mortgage or downsizes to make the most of their house’s increased value, they bring that over-inflated profit along, even though they have done relatively little to earn it. This cost is then paid by the people entering the market for the first time or looking to upscale. Yet again it is the younger generations that must over-pay because of the actions of the old - a cost which has been estimated at £1.3trn pounds in total. This has dire consequences for the distribution of wealth, which has been shifting in favour of elderly in recent years. A Bank of England study (pdf) found that in 2005, the average wealth of people aged between 25 and 34 had fallen to a third of its 1995 value, whereas the wealth of those aged 55-64 had tripled.

However, homeownership is not the only area in which the older generations have pulled the ladder up behind them. In Britain’s new, globalised “knowledge economy,” places at university are both extremely important and increasingly scarce, yet students now also have to borrow £9,000 to pay for their tuition, whereas those studying 15 years ago would have received it for free. As a result, a student graduating from a three-year university course will have an average debt of £42,000 (pdf) after living costs are factored in. Britain’s politicians have begun penalising those who want greater knowledge and skills, in an era when globalisation makes that education vital.

A lack of affordable housing and heaps of private and public debt won’t just deprive the young people of the chance to accrue material wealth, it will also delay their chances of becoming adults. As Shiv Malik and Ed Howker note in their book Jilted Generation, being an adult is about “family, savings, community, realizing ambitions and ideas, stability, even having children.” Adulthood is about feeling and being in control of your life, an ideal that is now out of reach for many. Two-thirds of people aged 20 to 45 believe they have no prospect of getting on the property ladder and 2.8 million 18 to 44 year olds are postponing children until they can afford a home (pdf). Many of the things that indicated adulthood to previous generations are being denied to this one. Britain is robbing its children of the chance to be grown-up.

Britain’s children won’t be the only ones that are hurt. All generations rely upon each other at some point in their life. When young, we rely on our parents to care for us and teach us right from wrong. When middle-aged we have to work, so that we can provide for the young and the elderly who can no longer take care of themselves. Then, when we are too old to work ourselves, we in turn will rely on those in work to care and provide for us. We live amid a web of loose social agreements about when to give and receive, underpinned by mutual advantage and tradition.

Britain has robbed its children. It has stopped them from buying a house and failed to support them in the scramble for education and jobs in a globalised world, while saddling them with private debt. Today’s twenty-something, who should be enjoying the best years of their lives, are trapped in uncertainty. If they manage to break out of this uncertainly, they find themselves citizens of a nation riddled with debt that will take until at least 2046 to pay off. It would not be surprising if, when this generation comes to take control of the country, they will lacks the funds, or the will, to carry on providing the generous support currently given to the elderly. Those now in control of Britain have not only robbed their children, but potentially stolen from themselves as well.
 

The austerity measures pursued by today’s coalition are unfairly weighted against young people. Photo: Getty
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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war