At 25 my Dad was married and had just bought a house. At 25 I am single and decidedly houseless, chasing a teaching career with a string of jobs across the UK and Asia already behind me. Two generations, two very different worlds.
Back in early December George Osborne indicated that people born in the 90s will have to work till 70 before they can draw a pension. For me this raised a small chuckle, because for us the prospect of there even being such a thing as a pension in 2050 seems fairly remote. We grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, a period of remarkable relative stability. Worries about climate change followed by the financial crisis in 2008, stripped away all of the certainties we had about the future.
The coalition followed this lead with an assault on young people, scrapping EMA, tripling tuition fees and threatening to stop benefits for those under 25. With out of control house prices and a precarious job market, young people are now expected to experience a lower quality of life than their parents. In a recent survey three quarters of a million young people in the UK felt they had nothing to live for. Life is definitely better for us LGBT people compared to our forefathers, but even though the coalition has brought us same-sex marriage, Labour did the hard work with the civil partnership bill. The Tories’ social liberalism is a smokescreen for their aggressive small state agenda.
There is the widespread feeling that we are presiding over a sinking ship. The global initiative seems to be inexorably turning away from the West, whilst at home increasing inequality contributes to many young people feeling locked out of a system that umms and ahhs about social mobility whilst doing nothing effective to tackle it – precisely because that would damage the same system that rewarded the likes of Cameron and Nick Clegg. Much of this is about class, but some worries are shared by all of us. The future is becoming increasingly difficult to predict; but with a tough job market, low wages and student loan payments eating into what should be savings there is little we can do to make ourselves financially secure for the future.
Meanwhile we are bandied about the head with the accusation of being the most entitled and narcissistic generation ever, addicted to selfies, iphones, and just about any other piece of technology or substance going. If you can’t find a job or are stuck in Asda stacking shelves with a 2.1 in philosophy you’ll be blamed for doing a Mickey Mouse degree and thinking you’re something special. Michael Gove may march around decrying the lack of hard skills being taught in schools, but most people in industry are crying out for the creative minds that are nurtured by the same education system we have already. The truth is that there just aren’t enough jobs for the most well educated generation in history.
We have an X Factor style job market that tells us that if we want it enough, we will get it; hundreds of candidates battle it out for the same job, and a ridiculous amount of time is wasted filling out never ending forms, writing cover letters, attending job centres and networking online, a useful activity for the corporations of Facebook, Google and Linkedin, but often not for the rest of us. View all this form filling and status updating as work, and you see how much is being lost to the country’s economy.
So as 2014 sashays into the room and signs of economic recovery strengthen, what can we expect of the future? We were talking about the future, my Dad and I, in the kitchen, wind lashing at the windows. I was feeling nervous about finding a new job in the UK after coming back from abroad, with the memory of China fresh in my head, the high speed railways, the under the table arrangements, the half truths, the endless apartment blocks stretching out and out; the UK seemed pale and far too stuck-in-its-ways to adapt. But young people in the UK are already being forced to adapt, whilst the government clumsily reaches for more of the same, reactionary policies. “It’s going to be a whole lot more difficult, but you’re going to learn a lot more than we ever did. It’ll do you good” – wise words Dad, cheers.
So that is the key. Adaptability, this will become our generation’s greatest strength, and although the prospect of never owning a house or having to wait till 70 or perhaps longer to retire is miserable, we are going to have to adjust our dreams and ideas of what makes us happy. The future is going to bring so much that is entirely unexpected, but all the tough times we’ve experienced, unemployment, all the internships, useless or useful degrees, the short term contracts and zero hour short term jobs will give us the tools and flexibility to build great things.
After all, at 25 my Dad had also worked in a string of different places, trying to find something to do that wasn’t soul destroying. A Levi’s jeans warehouse, a brick making factory, Dixons, a few weeks at Natwest before walking out and nicking an ashtray that still graces a shelf in the living room. He trained as a teacher, blamed Margaret Thatcher for lack of jobs, and then ended up as a piano tuner, which he remains to this day. Although jobs were more secure and sometimes for life, our parents did a lot of ducking and diving too. The difference is that we face not having a house at the end of it, and not having much of a safety net provided by the state, a precarious position to be in.
They may accuse us of chasing experiences and not having enough skills, but the result will be having multiple talents and broad knowledge. Even though now the point of it all may appear elusive, something is being built. We are not a lost generation. We are a generation who has the nous to tackle problems with a radically fresh viewpoint, adept at collaboration and rapid adaptation. The UK needs to dispense with tired ideas from the past, wipe away this malaise of backward looking pessimism and embrace the radical potential of our generation.