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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit