The phrase "graduate without a future" came into my head while I was lecturing students in the politics society at Birmingham University. I drew a notional graph of expectations, curving up: here's your income at 21, then you get rising wages, rising house prices once you're on the ladder; your pension pot grows and at the end of the curve you're comfortable and there's a welfare state to protect you if things go wrong.

That was the old curve. Then I drew the new one. It curves down: wages don't rise; you can't get on the property ladder. Fiscal austerity eats into your disposable income. You are locked out of your firm's pension scheme; you will wait until your late 60s for retirement. And if it all goes wrong, it's touch and go whether the welfare safety net will still be there.

By now some of the audience were getting neck ache from the vigorous nodding. This generation of young, educated people is unique – at least in the post-1945 period: a cohort who can expect to grow up poorer than their parents. They've seen a massive leap in youth unemployment: 19% in the UK, 17% in Ireland, 50% in Spain and Greece. But they've also lived through a revolution in technology and communications that was supposed to empower the young.

In grasping the basic inequity of the situation, students themselves were ahead of the journalists and commentators. As early as 2009 students in the self-designated "Research and Destroy" collective at the University of California, Santa Cruz, issued their famous "Communique from an absent future": "'Work hard, play hard' has been the over-eager motto of a generation in training for … what? – drawing hearts in cappuccino foam … We work and we borrow in order to work and to borrow. And the jobs we work toward are the jobs we already have. What our borrowed tuition buys is the privilege of making monthly payments for the rest of our lives."