The standard complaint against the cohort now entering its thirties is that we spend our time hiding from the student loans company in our parents’ basements and making five-pound artisanal lattes for our cats. The predictable reply is that it’s easy to say that when you enjoyed a free university place, a stable job and a livable welfare system to fall back on, and the house you bought for a tenner and change in 1972 is now worth two million or more.
Adulthood isn’t something you can buy or bargain for. A great many people of a certain age assume that because they have a spouse, a house and a hatchback, they are grown-ups and therefore deserve respect. The youth of today, however, are largely unable to afford any of those things and so have had to settle for working on our actual personalities and trying to build a future that isn’t so hellish.
When I first started writing angry whippersnapper columns for this magazine, I was 23, and it was somewhat expected. Everyone assured me that in a few years I’d settle down and learn to love late capitalism and be delivering screeds about how young people don’t know they’re born from a three-bedroom in Hampstead. This has not happened. They lied, again. As a female writer, of course, there is a very small window of time between being a “silly little girl” and a “bitter old hag” when your opinions actually count, and I believe it happened for me some time on a Tuesday in 2016 when I was in the shower.
I am now contentedly embracing hagdom, and have a serious appreciation for actual maturity in all things, and the second I see it in mainstream politics I’ll sign up. Unfortunately, most of the actual grown-ups I know are my age or younger.
Instead, we are led by an array of wizened children. The policies being pursued by the centre-right and the dregs of the neoliberal left are stubborn, selfish and infantile. How else are we supposed to think about the blind insistence that the same ideology that collapsed the world economy ten years ago will work just as well this time with a side-order of flailing, screeching nationalism? Our political leaders today have all the entitlement and lack of foresight of little kids with none of the instinctive sweetness and wonder. If you heard that Philip Hammond had an appreciation for the wonder and magic of childhood, your instinct would be to call the police.
The Tories have a young-people problem – the problem being that young people hate them and don’t want to vote for them. This is a problem that successive Tory leaders have been childishly kicking down the road until they could no longer avoid the spectre of “natural wastage”, which is a terrible way to talk about the fact that the loyal voters you bet the farm on are going to keep dying no matter how hard you ring-fence their pensions. Now, apparently, the Tories want to attract the young. The trouble is that they think this can be done with a swift rebrand and some slick lines. They’re skulking about like worn-out pick-up artists in a club at closing time, desperately trying to find someone under the age of 30 whom they haven’t already screwed. Well, perhaps they should have thought of that before they tripled tuition fees, tore up the welfare state and set the damn planet on fire.
Of course, there are always some throwbacks. As the Prime Minister lip-wobbles her way through another embarrassing round of talks about Brexit, that 70 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds voted against, we are assured that the Tories are looking for their own “young stars” to pass the torch to. The problem is that today’s young Tories are – I’m trying to think of a polite way to put this – the most wheedling bunch of gropers who ever had a sly wank to the portrait of Maggie Thatcher in the prefects’ room. Their heads are empty of any image but their own in nicer suits and in power, their faces are flushed as if they’re being strangled by matching college ties of cultural irrelevance, and they still have the afterbirth of finance capitalism all over their smooth, pink cheeks. They have already had business cards made for a future that is not coming. Pay them no mind.
In fact, young people don’t necessarily want to vote for young people. What attracts this solemn, unparented generation these days is politicians who behave, uncharacteristically, like grown-ups. Not the sort of grown-ups who scream at you for respect they haven’t earned. The other sort. The ones who can assess a situation in terms other than how it will personally benefit them.
This, rightly or wrongly, is the impression Bernie Sanders gives, and the impression Jeremy Corbyn gives; the impression of actual adulthood, which involves a certain amount of unselfish forward-planning. When Corbyn says that he is personally against the monarchy but he understands that not a lot of people share that view so we’ll table it for now, you actually believe him. He seems like he still doesn’t know a lot about social media but is probably really polite and respectful to the sneaker-wearing people who run it for him. The government, meanwhile, has probably by now captured some hipsters and offered them free rent in a warehouse under Whitehall if they keep churning out dank memes.
It’s not hard to figure out what young people like. They like secure housing, affordable education, fair wages and, as it turns out, unfortunately for the Tories, socialism. To plan for the future or provide for the young is to accept the inevitability of one’s own ageing and death, and this is something the Peter Pan generation currently clinging confusedly to power refuse to do. They have never accepted that there will be a world after them, which is what adulthood actually involves. This is why it’s up to the young to be the adults now.
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia