No economy for young people

Today’s graduate can expect to be poorer than his or her parents, a phenomenon unique to the post 1945 society. And the West’s broken economic model cannot tap into this lost generation’s mastery of new technologies.

Published on 4 July 2012 at 15:32

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."

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Crisis writes off a generation

The young “are the ones paying the highest price for the economic crisis,” writes the director of La Stampa, Mario Calabresi, following the publication of Eurostat figures on youth unemployment in Europe (22.7% in May), and particularly in Italy (36.2%) —

One favours giving secure opportunities to the new. The young have always lacked experience, everywhere and always, but we appreciate their energy and passion and the new ideas and change they bring. We seem to have forgotten that. But why does this generation of fathers, mothers and grandparents – who protect them every day, who put a roof over their heads, who give them money for drinks, holidays and petrol for their cars – not fight for them? Because in trying to protect and pamper them, we have not let them be tested. We have been afraid for them, and we end up thinking they are immature.

Paraphrasing the coach of the Italian national football team, Cesare Prandelli, after the defeat of the “Azzurri” in the Euro 2012 final, Calabresi believes that Italy is “not just an old country with old ideas” but a country “so attached to the world of yesterday that it spends most of its time regretting rather than looking to the future and to change”. That’s why, he writes, the only way out of the crisis is to “start with the young, and build the future with them” – because “the world is not changing: it already has changed.”

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