This isn’t just about welfare. It isn’t just about saving public money. It certainly isn’t just about the feckless and workshy breeding on the state. David Cameron’s desire to remove housing benefit from (almost) everyone below the age of 25 might be evidence – depending on where you’re coming from politically – of populism, of the re-emergence of the “Nasty Party” or of some long-overdue tough love. But I would put it in a wider social context. I would ask: why it is happening now?
Cameron says that he wants to tackle a culture of dependence upon the state. What he seems to want to replace it with is dependence of children upon their parents well into what most would consider adulthood. He praises the couples who live (usually apart) in the family home until they can afford to put down a deposit on a house, a dream which may be forever beyond many of today’s young people. He damns those who start their families early, before they have the wherewithal to support themselves and their offspring through their wages alone.
Of course, the rhetoric contrasts the feckless unemployed “scrounger” with the “responsible” twentysomething (or perhaps even thirtysomething) who works all day and then comes home to Mum and Dad. As the prime minister must be well aware, however, the majority of housing benefit claimants are in work. And that includes those who are under the age of 25. The benefit bill has mushroomed because rising house prices and rent levels have prevented an increasing number of working people from affording homes without help, whether that help comes from the state, from parental loans or from the ability to live in the parental home effectively rent-free.
In such a generationally skewed market, housing benefit might well be seen more as an aid to achieving independence and adulthood than as a form of dependence upon the state. To be able to leave the family home is a prerequisite to being able to travel to find work. It thus encourages self-reliance, self-esteem and a spirit of positive engagement with the world. Conversely, being forced to stay at home in adult life risks inculcating fatalism, depression and social as well as geographical immobility. Not to mention social friction, embarrassment, sexual frustration (not all parents are happy for even their adult children to sleep with partners in the family home), resentment and a sense of failure.
The true purpose of a safety net is not just to catch people when they fall, but to give them the confidence to jump.
Of course it’s unfair that some young families are accommodated with the help of the state while other young people cannot afford to leave home and start families of their own. I can see how this can lead to resentment. But it’s hard to see how unfairness is eliminated by making things unfair for everyone. What is needed is a properly thought-out strategy for putting housing within the reach of younger people who don’t work for investment banks or have trust funds to fall back on.
As I suggested at the beginning, though, this is about more than just housing benefit. To propose 25 as a qualifying age for help with rent is to imply that, whatever their circumstances, anyone below that age is not really an adult. In effect, it is to extend the concept of adolescence into the mid-twenties. It is to say that under-25s are too young for responsibility, too young to have lives and children of their own. Twentysomething pregnancy is the new teenage pregnancy and poorly-paid young workers are the new NEETs. Cameron’s latest proposal does not exist in a vacuum. Recent years have seen such nonsenses as “Challenge 25”, a draconian response to the declining “problem” of underage drinking that subjects people of clearly legal age to the ritual humiliation of producing ID at supermarket checkouts. One might note the demographic category of 18-25 itself, originally a marketing tool that assumes that people in their twenties are still basically teenagers. Indeed, it has increasingly been supplanted an 18-34 demographic, truly an ominous sign.
A society in which mass higher education is the norm is going to think rather differently about growing up than one in which most children leave school at 16 and enter the labour market. But the biggest contributory factor to delayed-onset adulthood is surely economic: the accumulation of capital in the older generation. The middle aged and the elderly have all the money and most of the power. This is not necessarily good news for them. The flip-side of extended adolescence is extended parenthood. To force younger people to live at home is also to force middle-aged people to continue to fund and support their offspring. If adult children are unable to begin their independent lives, their parents are equally unable to resume theirs.