“Do your parents love you?” asks Neil Boorman. “Of course they do — but it hasn’t stopped them from robbing you blind.” Boorman’s new book, gleefully entitled It’s All Their Fault, is one of a clutch of works to have emerged this year that analyse the socio-economic crisis facing today’s young people. Books like David Willetts’ The Pinch and Radical Future, published by the journal Soundings, are easing into motion the rusty gears of generational conflict — and not a moment too soon.
After the crash of autumn 2008, Generation Y realised with a rush of horror that no matter how good we were or how relentlessly we hammered our minds and bodies into the grooves laid out for us by our parents and teachers, everything was definitely not going to be fine. Instead, we are going to spend our lives paying for our parents’ excesses, who have bequeathed us a broken economy, a stagnant job market and a planet that’s increasingly on fire. This sudden understanding of just how blithely our future has been mortgaged has been festering for a full 18 months, and now a rash of books has broken out, angry and sore, across the body politic.
Most of these books concentrate on pointing fingers at the Baby Boomer generation, currently in their 50s and 60s, who enjoyed free higher education, generous welfare, good jobs and great music, and grew up to own a vastly disproportionate share of the wealth of the nation. David Willetts’s The Pinch, subtitled How the Baby Boomers Took their Children’s Future – and How they can Give it Back, makes no bones about who is responsible for the plight of the young. But rather than analysing the effect of the contraction of social mobility on the prospects and potential of Generation Y, Willetts, who hopes to be a member of the Conservative cabinet in a fortnight’s time, advocates a return to traditional gender norms, particularly marriage. He prefers to blame the evils of “feminism” for the crisis, offering a decidedly atavistic assessment of “Where It All Went Wrong” that, one suspects, was written with middle-aged swing voters in marginal seats in mind.
Unlike Willetts, Tony Judt at least deigns to address young people in Ill Fares The Land, which takes a far broader view of the political psychology of the young, analysing not just consumerism and the stagnation of social mobility, but also the loss of socialism and social democracy as alternatives to neoliberal orthodoxy. Judt reminds us that “[m]uch of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization, the growing disparities of rich and poor.”
Like Willetts, Judt is himself a Baby Boomer. Both men are personally wealthy and successful, at least by the standards of a generational cohort for whom home ownership and meaningful work are distant dreams. And even Judt’s otherwise readable book occasionally lapses into half-hearted apologism of the sort that has become a hallmark of privileged Baby Boomer commentary on the “Lost Generation”, who are denied the space or the opportunity to answer back.
Radical Future, edited by Ben Little, attempts to create that space, with young people from a range of backgrounds contributing chapters on their experiences of growing up under New Labour. 19-year-old Clare Coatman’s assessment of her “Blairite education” and Noel Hatch’s analysis of youth unemployment stand out in particular. However, the contributions — including my own on mental health — are limited by a sort of desperate worthiness that retreats from real radicalism. Only Boorman’s book truly captures frustration of Generation Y at discovering that we have not only been taken for a ride, but are now expected to get out and push.
Boorman identifies the coming general election as a generational last stand, despite the fact that no mainstream party is addressing young voters and the young themselves see only the opportunity to change the face of the grinning dad-a-like who will be mortgaging our prospects. “We have one chance to create change, and this is it,” he declares — but such panicked generational doom-mongering is unhelpful to those young people at the sharp end of the global recession who are wondering where their future went.
It can only be good news for young people that commentators are beginning to notice the socio-economic timebomb we’ve been handed, but these books fail to offer Generation Y the one thing we need more than anything else: a long view. Rather than presenting young people with a coherent manifesto for our social and political inheritance, contemporary analysis tends to lapse into either helpless rage or blithe apologism. Members of Generation Y already know that this is a terrible time to be young. What we need is the tools to imagine a better world.
The young people of Generation Y don’t need your pity, and we haven’t got time for a collective tantrum. We need to reclaim our social, political and economic inheritance, and we need to do it now. Raging into the void may be cathartic, but only a coherent radical framework will help us get what we want — which is our future back.