In the second of our pair of intergenerational stories comparing the experiences of two generations, Tom Hannah (the son) tells his tale, and explains why he feels his generation has drawn the short straw
2001 – unforgettable and world-changing. I am 10 years old and I’ve just walked into the house and switched on the TV. Expecting to see my usual dose of CBBC nonsense followed by Blue Peter I’m gobsmacked that the news is on. It’s 4 o’clock I’m thinking, how dare the adult establishment muscle in on my children TV time. Nevertheless I was alarmed at the pictures I was seeing – were those planes flying into buildings?
If I’d known at the time the monumental effects that the 11th of September were going to have on Britain’s political future I probably would have been more interested in the day’s events. Sure I was glued to the TV: I’d never seen anything like this before. However, I had no idea about the consequences Al-Qaida’s actions would have on policy in Britain and how my teenage years would be shaped by the post-9/11 Bush-Blair cabal.
A year after the 11th of September attacks I attended my local state comp secondary school. No 11-plus for me, not even an entrance exam: I was already accepted to my school thanks to the merits of my three older siblings. Unlike my father, who was the trailblazer of his family, I was more meekly following in their footsteps. I enjoyed school, perhaps a little too much, and in my early years I often found myself in trouble. Backchatting, interrupting teachers, getting into fights; I was an annoying child to teach. Having been put in a lower set to my siblings, I had a chip on my shoulder and took it out on my teachers.
However, as I got older I got a little wiser and when I took my GCSEs I did very well and went on to study English, Philosophy, Economics and History for my AS Levels (dropping English for my A-Levels). I got top marks in all my subjects, I even got full marks in a few – but I was reminded at the time that A-Levels (like my GCSEs) were easy and getting an A was no achievement; the media were obsessed with devaluing qualifications. Education Secretary after Education Secretary wanted to overhaul GCSEs and A-Levels – “Stop grade inflation”, “Bring back O-Levels” declared the Blairites! The result was a bold, innovative and ground-breaking new idea: they introduced a new grade into A-Levels. You could now get a shiny star after your A.
Out of the bubble – into the world
Like father like son I also found myself rejected from Oxbridge, in fact I one-upped my dad by getting rejected by both Oxford and Cambridge. It didn’t have a tremendous knock on my confidence; obviously I was disappointed, but I never really expected to get into either and I just applied because my school at the time was pushing me to do so.
At this juncture in my life I took a dramatic left-turn in comparison to my father: instead of going off straight to university I did the in-vogue middle-class thing of the day which was to go on a “gap yah”. Like my brothers and sisters before me, I saved up money and worked to pay for my trip, and for my 18th birthday received a generous gift from parents. With two school friends I travelled to South America for four months and got coaches across Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. We travelled on a shoestring and definitely not in luxury and had a life-changing time. Unlike most 18 year olds travelling in South America, we didn’t spend all our time taking cocaine but tried to explore the New World.
It was life-changing in many senses: my middle-class suburban London bubble had been burst and I was afforded a glimpse into the real world. South America has so much wealth and beauty, but I will never forget the grim and deplorable sights I saw in the favelas of Rio and the mines of Potosi. All in all I was humbled by the experience and I returned to England with a greater understanding of the damaging effects of colonialism and capitalism.
Studying – Ivan Kalita style
On my return to England I attended the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a faculty within University College London (UCL), to study History – with a focus on Russia. Unlike my father I didn’t have to get a grant, as my parents had offered to support me throughout university (like he did with his other three children). I still applied for a student loan to help support living costs; however my debts of £10,000 are meagre in comparison to most of my contemporaries, and miniscule in comparison to future students.
I enjoyed my studies tremendously; I did a bizarrely in-depth course in Eastern and Central European history and now regale friends with tales of Vlad the Impaler, Jan Sobierski, Josef Pilsudski and the Iron Guard. However, as with my A-Levels and GCSEs, my degree was overshadowed by the views of the wider world – instead of being my future-securing qualification that promised me riches and opportunities I was being reminded that a degree in humanities was about as useful as a marzipan umbrella.
As you can see, unlike my father I’ve had a very privileged life. I didn’t grow up in a two-up, two-down in the grim, destitute North. I grew up in a castle (by London standards) in South London. I didn’t have to pay my way through university, nor did I have to endure the 1970s with its awful hair, lack of electricity and absence of Techno music! My life by the standards of both my contemporaries and ancestry has been very easy.
However, I’d still argue that it is my generation – not my father’s – that is the unlucky one.
Reasons to feel aggrieved in the 21st century
Firstly, I think my dad benefited greatly from having a grammar school education. It gave him confidence from a young age that he was intelligent and different – it was ingrained in his psyche from 11 that he was built to achieve and had the abilities to do so. When you compare this to my academic life the two couldn’t be more polarised. I’ve grown up being told that no matter how well I do, it will never be as good as those who came before me, and that qualifications are meaningless in comparison to “experience”. Who cares if I have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Russian history and I can recite J.S. Mill – this is useless and fanciful in the modern world.
Secondly, my dad grew up in a generation where meritocracy existed and you could see working-class people being represented. When I look to politics now, all I see is public-school boys who went to Oxford or Cambridge. Sure it wasn’t tremendously different in the 1970s, and the grey-suited, stiff-upper-lip elite dominated politics then like now; however, at least there were politicians like Foot and Benn and who challenged the opposition and represented socialist ideas.
Moreover, having a Prime Minister like Harold Wilson who was visibly different and favoured positive social reform would have given huge encouragement to young people in Britain at the time. I on the other hand have grown up with this grotesque, egocentric, pompous class of Thatcherite droogs where consensus and conservatism is king. Reform and improving the country comes second to sound bites and Sun headlines. Everyone has the same polished accent and inhuman ability to recite party policy.
You also feel that, no matter how intelligent you may be, you’ll never crack the public-school monopoly in politics, finance, the media and judiciary. I would argue that if my father had grown up when I have, he wouldn’t have achieved what he has. He wouldn’t have been able to afford university at all, and there is no way he would have been able to support himself in London; and the security of home-ownership would have been a distant dream. Nowadays if you want to succeed, you have to have the security of your parents and the right accent. If you don’t, tough luck – no one is going to help you.
Thirdly, my dad grew up with a freedom to question the status quo. When I look at scenes from the Miners’ Strikes or the Poll Tax Riots I see people standing up to injustices. People had the freedom to organise and the freedom to protest. My generation has no such right – we are threatened with kettling, tear-gas and the new weapon on the streets: water cannon. Moreover, we can be arrested for pretty much anything under the dubious “Terrorism Act”. We are constantly watched by GCHQ – our phones effectively tapped, our emails intercepted.
Although maybe my generation doesn’t shout loud enough it’s because we know our qualms will fall on deaf ears. I’ve grown up to see no public protest achieve anything – be it against the Iraq War or tuition fees. My politicians answer to a tyrannous majority and do anything to appease that middle-England conglomerate – they certainly have no time to listen to my infantile generation who’ve had it “so easy” and are so “naïve”.
Lastly, my dad didn’t have to grow up with the knowledge that in 30 years’ time there is going to be between 50 to 300 million refugees as a result of climate change, that entire nations are going to be wiped out and that there is going to be huge shortages in water, food and other natural resources. Although at the moment I’m worried about my lack of work and lack of prospects, my greater concern is for the future and whether or not I’m going to live in a police state where I have to fight people for water rations. Perhaps I’m being alarmist but I’d definitely argue that the prospects of my generation are far grimmer than those of my parents’ generation, and – although I’ve had it good until now – I don’t think my good luck is likely to continue.