I was recently invited to give a short talk at my secondary school to sixth-form students who start university later this year. In previous decades, university marked the start of adulthood. Not any more: young adults in Britain today are trapped in permanent adolescence.
They will enter a workforce in which average real wages are projected to drop below 2008 levels this year, and remain there until 2025. They will face a housing market in which house prices have dramatically outpaced earnings since 2000: the average UK house price is 65 times higher today than it was in 1970, while average wages are only 36 times higher. It is no surprise that more than a quarter of adults aged between 18 and 34 now live with their parents. For the first time in history, half of all women in England and Wales are childless at 30.
Older people, meanwhile, are enjoying a cultural renaissance. Elton John and the Rolling Stones play Hyde Park, Paul McCartney stars at Glastonbury, the first night of Abba Voyage sold out, and Kate Bush is top of the singles chart with a song that was released 37 years ago.
The first data from the England and Wales 2021 Census, released on 28 June, showed that there are now more people aged over 65 than under 15. Meanwhile, the population of under-fours has fallen since 2011, while the number of people aged over 90 has risen.
This is reflected in our national politics. The Financial Times’ Simon Kuper recently observed that “neither main party now offers a vision of the future. No wonder: an ageing society doesn’t particularly need one.” The Conservatives pursue socialism for the old and capitalism for the young. While the state pension has risen by almost 10 per cent in real terms since 2010, Universal Credit has fallen by 11.5 per cent.
This gerontocratic model isn’t specific to Britain. In the US, birth rates have similarly fallen, and Anglo-American culture is characterised by stagnation. The American music critic Ted Gioia has argued, on the basis of these cultural trends, that a counterculture no longer exists. “A sense of sameness,” he writes in his Substack, “pervades the creative world.” Much of the music we listen to and the films we watch today fit rigid genres and formulas. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat likewise argues in his book, The Decadent Society, that cultural innovation has been stifled in recent decades.
There is no single explanation for all this, and there is also no straightforward solution. The Oxford University demographer Paul Morland recently argued in the Sunday Times for a tax on the childless. His proposal generated outrage, with commentators advocating for more affordable housing and childcare, and better maternity pay. But none of these policies will fundamentally change the situation. Countries such as Denmark have more pro-natal economic policies, but birth rates are still falling.
In a recent paper, “The Puzzle of Falling US Birth Rates Since the Great Recession”, Melissa Kearney, Phillip Levine and Luke Pardue argue that the decline in birth rates in the US cannot be attributed to any specific economic or social policies. They hypothesise that, instead, the “shifting priorities among more recent cohorts, potentially driven by changes in preferences for having children, aspirations for life, and parenting norms” can explain this change better. They add: “We see no indication in the data that there is likely to be a reversal of these trends in the near future.”
It’s ultimately a question of shifting culture and values. Studies show that those with a higher level of education are more likely to see children as a burden – and university applications continue to rise. The more secular a society is, the fewer children it is likely to produce. In the US, reports Gallup, 70 per cent of the population belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque at the start of this century; in 2020 that figure was 47 per cent. In the UK, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, more than half of the British public do not belong to any religion.
Such cultural changes cannot be undone by simple economic policy. This issue is morally and practically complex. The expansion of women’s education and their greater access to professional careers, while it may contribute to falling birth rates, is a positive development. As for wages and house prices, the problems are so entrenched that it will be many years before the effects of any policy implemented now are felt. In terms of rejuvenating popular culture, the firms that spend money on creating content want reliable success rather than risky experiments – and, in any case, audiences seem satisfied. And all these examples of stagnation are haunted, ultimately, by climate change.
In my talk to sixth-form students facing a barren adult landscape, I will quote to them Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” One doesn’t need to be religious to be struck by the tough sagacity of this statement. It doesn’t counsel despair or fatalism. It affirms that some things in our society need to be changed. But it doesn’t endorse naive optimism either: some things cannot be changed. The key for young people in Britain today is distinguishing one from the other.
Tomiwa Owolade joins the New Statesman as a contributing writer
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson