With 1.5 million under-30s currently unemployed, sky-high rents and annual student tuition fees of £9,000 from September 2012, it’s clear that young people in the UK today are under unprecedented financial pressure. But the voice of young people doesn’t seem to be getting heard by policy-makers, nor by other generations in society.
We at IF want to change that – so we’ve launched “Young, Gifted and Broke”, a short film competition, in association with The Guardian and the NUS. We hope the short films made will allow the under-30s to speak out and put into their own words how current government policies are affecting them, whether it’s the squeeze on housing, student debt, the lack of jobs, feelings of powerlessness or fears for the future.
Sky-high rents, particularly in the South East, are taking so much money from the average young person’s take-home pay that there is often very little money to spend on anything else. The very idea of saving for a deposit for a mortgage is – for most – laughable. The proof is in the housing market, where the average age of a first-time buyer has risen to 37 (in London that goes up to a shocking 52). Meanwhile one in three men aged 20–35 are now living with their parents – not for free washing and cooked meals, but because they simply cannot afford to live independently.
Government austerity cuts, such as the means-testing of housing benefit for the under-25s, appear to be falling disproportionately on poorer young people, pushing them ever further into the hands of rogue landlords and pay-day loan companies.
There is a growing crisis of ageing, but this is also affecting the young. The social contract between the young and the State is being undermined, now that “need” appears to be being based more on how old you are, rather than wealth or circumstance. While the universal benefits that kick in once you reach 60-plus years of age – irrespective of your wealth – seem untouchable, young people of school age have seen their Education Maintenance Allowance scrapped.
The introduction of £9,000 annual tuition fees is bound to add further financial distress. Family conversations have changed from where young people should go to university to whether they can afford to go to university at all. A graduate debt of approximately £42,000 is not something to take on lightly, even though payments do not start until earnings exceed £21,000 a year. Most graduates are likely to be paying down the loan until it is written off after 30 years, when they are in their 50s.
Along with near-record unemployment, our young people are also having to deal with a changing employment market.
The growth of part-time and short-term contract work has removed job stability from the employment equation. No longer do young people have the same protection as full-time workers. All too often, last in, first out seems to be the order of the day – meaning younger, less experienced staff members are sacrificed first when the squeeze is on.
Furthermore, the growth in zero-hour contracts offered by big businesses – putting profits or shareholder satisfaction before workforce wellbeing – further destabilises young people’s lives. Demanding that staff members be available to go into work at a moment’s notice, whilst not guaranteeing a minimum number of work hours in any one week, means all too often young people are increasingly unable to plan their spending or cover their living costs.
And then we have internships. Whilst valuable, fairly paid internships exist, unpaid internships are a particularly pernicious form of exploitation, often taken up by better-off young graduates who can afford to work for free, thereby undermining the principles of social mobility and widening the work experience divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Intergenerational justice requires that the environment each generation passes on to its children and grandchildren is in as good a state as they themselves inherited. Yet the world that we are handing on to younger and future generations is in the midst of an urgent environmental crisis. Climate change, resource depletion and extensive species loss are now at acute levels. We revel in a consumption culture that depletes the natural capital that future generations will rely on for their very survival.
Think of “debt” and you immediately think “personal debt”. Think young people’s debt and it’s often dismissed as too much time spent down the pub or an excessive consumer lifestyle. The reality is often very different with students and NEETs living hand-to-mouth, paying high prices for energy, transport and food, with a diminishing State safety net to protect them from poverty.
Debt also covers the massive debts being passed down the generations by policy-makers who believe the debts they rack up will becomes less expensive over time. Discounting the future was used by both Labour and Conservative governments to fund the £237 billion Private Finance Initiative (PFI) spending spree of the 1990s and 2000s. These deals saw unprecedented investment in schools and hospitals. However, current users are not paying off these debts; instead clever accountants have parcelled them up and sent them into the future for our children to pay. That cannot be fair to future generations.
Young people in the UK today are the least respected across 29 European countries polled in the 2010 European Social Survey. Labelled as “hoodies”, “yobs” or “feral” by the media and older generations, our young people are easy pickings, seen as a negative cohort, the boomerang generation, apathetic, uninterested and a drain on society. It seems it’s acceptable to stigmatise our young in a way that would be entirely unacceptable if applied to older generations.
Our film competition is called “Young, Gifted and Broke” for a good reason. There are hundreds of thousands of gifted young people out there, but their talents too often are being frustrated, ignored or stifled.
Over the last 70 years short-term gain has become more highly prized than sustainability of services and resources. This has created a tension between the generations as older generations have expectations of lifestyles they simply haven’t paid enough for, and cannot afford to sustain. They now expect younger generations to foot the bill. Our young people may be the first generation in recent history to have lower living standards than their parents.
Have the older generation forgotten the social contract in the pursuit of their own desires and expectations? We need to consider those to come as well as our own desires and expectations. As Edmund Burke said in 1789, “It [the state] becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”