This was first published in Quadrapheme, a UK Literature Review site.
Is there is a problem with today’s young? In short, no. Whereas previous generations had, say, Napoleonic or world wars to fight, our youth have it pretty easy on the livin’ fast, dyin’ young front.
At heart, the young today are as brave and as feckless as every other cohort of 18-to-30 year olds since the coming of the industrial era. As with previous generations, of course, there are structural flaws in the operation of the free market that mean that assets like homes are harder for the present cohort to purchase, compared to previous cohorts born since 1945. The straightforward solution is to build more cheap and suitable housing.
Had Georgia Gould, in her book Wasted: How Misunderstanding Young Britain Threatens Our Future (Little Brown, March 2014) focused purely on economic matters, her book could have been short and crisp. Yes, build more houses, raise the retirement age incrementally and encourage—nay, force—all workers to pay into a managed pension that invests the savings in the productive economy, thereby growing it faster than the rate of inflation rather than supporting the Ponzi scheme that is our current state pension.
Unfortunately, her undergraduate scree in Wasted largely ignores all these weighty matters and focuses on the amorphous, squirming non-problem of giving young people a ‘voice’. In outline, she sets up some myths as straw men (young people are apathetic, lazy and entitled, selfish, amoral, irresponsible, homogenous criminals) and then knocks them down to show that the young in fact are not like that. They are just political, engaged, caring, community-oriented entrepreneurs of a different kind to their ‘traditional’ parents.
Gould’s ‘myths’ betray a tabloid filtered view of the young. Too many of her examples are about popular perceptions of politics and politicians, for instance, which are simply not accurate: MPs bicker and Prime Minister’s Questions is not a serious and considered debate on the big crises of the day. But this is only a small sliver of the vast directing, planning, reviewing, scrutinising creature that is Parliament. She—and apparently most of the young—ignore that.
Gould is unaware of the central problem of modern politics: since the right won the battle of ideas in a liberal representative democracy coupled with a more-or-less free market economy, the ideological Wasted focuses on the amorphous, squirming non-problem of giving young people a ‘voice’ differences between the main parties have narrowed sharply, from an oceanic gulf to a piddling stream. This is particularly true during the recession Britain appears to be leaving; no government of any colour has money to lavish about as Messers Blair, Brown et al., did in the decade from 1997. Politics is today boringly managerial—how best to achieve broadly agreed goals.
There has been a fall in trust in politicians, as Gould notes, but it is a pathology with many causes. Some are the personal failures of integrity in the sleaze scandals, both sexual and financial, of the 1990s, and the systemic failures of the expenses debacle. But voting has been falling across all classes, and there is no reason why these factors should particularly be felt by the young.
For an Oxford-educated councillor and Parliamentary candidate, Gould makes some startlingly idiotic remarks. She asserts that “we need young people more than ever” on the grounds that “technological revolution is bringing about change at a pace unbeknown to previous generations”. This is palpable nonsense. The need for young men after both World Wars was a far more pressing matter than the need for ‘yoof’ today.
Her entire book misses the obvious point that the demographic trend is for a declining birth rate across the Western world, with many countries now failing to meet the population replacement rate of 2.1 children per mother. To my mind the single most pressing social problem in contemporary Britain is the burgeoning class of elderly people and the insufficient economic base to support them. The truth is that energetic, adaptive workers will be increasingly valued as the baby boomers retire, spending their gold-plated pension pots and returning housing to the market place.
Every single generation since the start of the modern industrial era has made a similar claim about the revolutionary nature of their scientific and practical advancement. For Gould, the pace of change is what makes the present generation of teens/twentysomethings uniquely self-important: they have “grown up in an age of technological dynamism; they are comfortable with the flux and creative destruction the internet brings with it.”
Yes, to be sure, Zuckerberg was 20 when he created Facebook, and Brin and Page both 25 when they launched Google. But when Google was launched, the internet itself was in its infancy (Web 1.0, if you prefer) and,There has been a fall in trust in politicians but it is a pathology with many causes and there is no reason why these factors should particularly be felt by the young as maths PhDs at Stanford, Brin and Page were uniquely well-placed to build the search algorithm that now dominates web browsers. Facebook was deliberately created by a programming geek student to connect his other student friends. Gould’s assertion that today “a six-year-old is more technologically proficient than their parents” is just laughable. Their parents are likely to be in their mid- to late-thirties and more than capable of posting baby photos on Instagram, booking flights and investing in the stock market online.
What rapid technological change demands, unquestionably, is the capability to deal with the moral aspects of such development. Here I’m afraid I am far from sure that being young is in any sense a benefit. It’s wonderful to have an idealism of youth—‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive / but to be young was very heaven’ and all that—but moral, and with it political, maturation involves experiencing life.
Where the young are winning is in the trot of social liberalism. Younger people consider family types interchangeable between married opposite-sex parents, single parents, or stranger same-sex couples. They look at abortion and euthanasia favourably, as rights free to all even if ones they wouldn’t chose to exercise themselves. Most aren’t formally religious but agnostic – ‘not interestedist’ or ‘don’t carist’ – or, less frequently, atheist or otherwise ‘spiritual’.
Gould, being of the ‘new young’, completely ignores the single best driver of happiness and social mobility I can think of: the presence of two opposite-sex parents who stick together to bring up their children (and help with their grandchildren), reading to them at night, helping with the homework, and instilling in their offspring the deepest markers of love, commitment, selflessness and determination.
The picture of the young painted in Wasted is of an interest group of its own, a soi disant class of people with fears, needs and desires just because of their age, rather than because of other identities that they may have. Gould—a Labour councillor from one of that party’s leading families—unsurprisingly seeks to create a group that she and the left can capture and tame as their own. Many of the vox pop quotes she uses are of youths moaning about the lack of “support” they get: the withdrawal of education maintenance allowance, the absence of local government-run facilities or ‘co-ordinators’.
If you create false conscientiousness in a group and diagnose its ills as being caused by a deficiency in state-funded baubles—money paid out of their parents’ taxes—then you energise a pliant political movementWhat rapid technological change demands, unquestionably, is the capability to deal with the moral aspects of such developmentthat naturally leans to the revolutionary, idealistic left anyway. With the Conservatives tackling the ‘welfare’ class and shifting the national balance from public to private sector employment, Labour need new clientele. All of her four “bases for a new social contract with young people”—children, education, employment and housing—are excuses for more and more state intervention under the banner of “increasing fairness”.
In all, if you want a serious and useful critique of the structural problems afflicting modern Britain, don’t read this book. If you want page after page of tendentious wailing about process, do.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London. This review has been republished from Quadrapheme.