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9 August 2017

A life lived in the post-crash world has given the young good reason to back Corbyn

The credit crunch a decade ago has shaped the adult lives of a whole generation.

By Abi Wilkinson

When the credit crunch began a decade ago in the summer of 2007, I was still a teenager. As the resulting financial crash took hold in 2008, I turned 18. Like the rest of my generation, my whole adult life has been lived in a post-crash world.

The crash and the political decisions that followed it have for the most part hit young people the hardest. Those of us who reached maturity within the past decade or so have been particularly vulnerable to employment casualisation, and are disproportionately likely to be underemployed, on zero-hours contracts or working in the gig economy. Most of us are forced to live in privately-rented accommodation, which means we’ve seen our housing costs spiral as our wages have stagnated or fallen.

Lots of people my age worry they’ll never have the opportunity to retire. Even mentioning the subject can make us uncomfortable. When the overriding theme of your life is insecurity, it’s often easier to concentrate on the here and now. With the looming threat of climate change and, thanks to President Donald Trump, the newly-likely possibility of nuclear apocalypse, who knows for sure what the world will look like in 30 or 40 years?

Even without such existential crises, we have good reasons for doubting that the economic status quo will deliver the sort of life it did for our parents. Millennials are on track to be the first cohort of workers in modern times to earn less that the previous generation.

When I hear people express bewilderment about the support for Jeremy Corbyn among younger voters, I assume they must be oblivious to these processes. Though working-class people of all ages have been hit post-crash, most pensioners have been cushioned from both spending cuts and changes to the labour market. Warnings about the risks of comparatively radical change only work on an audience that feels it has something to lose. This is what the Conservatives seem to have forgotten – their basic offering rests on the premise we have something worthwhile to preserve.

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It’s illuminating to recall my own world view back in 2006, when I was making my A-level choices, and compare it with my attitude post-2008. I’ve been politically left-leaning from a comparatively young age, but prior to the financial crash I had almost an unconscious sort of hope.

I was confident enough in my career prospects that I decided to study subjects I enjoyed, rather than thinking about the skills likely to be in greatest demand. Though I’m currently managing to make an income from my choices (albeit of the insecure, freelance variety) if I had my time again I’d probably lean towards STEM subjects as a comparatively safer bet.

Now the thought of being out of work fills me with an entirely rational terror, partly because I’ve seen its effects on older members of my own family. Conservative and right-wing media efforts to cast unemployment as a moral failing – effectively blaming the victims of economic processes for their own victimisation – led large swathes of the population to look away, or even cheer, as intense cruelty was inflicted on struggling households in the form of benefit sanctions, cuts and freezes.

In the Guardian today, Resolution Foundation director Torsten Bell says the opportunity to learn from the crash has been missed by successive governments. In contrast to the radical post-war reforms under Clement Attlee in the UK or Franklin D Roosevelt in the US, Cameron and May responded to their own cataclysm by making things worse. By slashing both taxes and spending they have exacerbated problems created by the crash – primarily benefiting the wealthy while ordinary people experienced the erosion of basic employment rights, a 10.4 per cent decline in real earnings and the gradual destruction of public services. 

Yet unlike Bell I don’t think the opportunity to build something new out of the rubble of the crash has passed. Sometimes, responses happen on a lag. As Conservative-led governments have failed to deliver on their promises of a return to stability and prosperity, the appetite for something different has grown.

The memes and chants about Jeremy Corbyn are not actually about the man, but rather the things he represents. He’s our shot at the 21st century version of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Our modern-day Attlee, who’ll do more than simply restore the achievements of previous Labour governments – as Attlee himself also would if he was prime minister today.

Scoff all you want, but an ever-growing proportion of British voters are prepared to put their faith in the only party telling us that yes, things can actually get better. No, you don’t have to just accept your living standards continuing to decline.

The more the old, affluent and oblivious roll their eyes at young Labour supporters’ belief that building a better society is possible, the more determined we are to make it happen. After a decade of managing our expectations ever downwards in the shadow of a crash we didn’t create, it’s intoxicating to rediscover hope.

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