The kids are alright, but not all right

The BBC news website had an article about the political affiliations of Generation Y (which is the name unimaginative pop demographers have given to people currently aged 18–30, on the basis that they are the generation after Generation X). The article seems to me rather silly.

Let’s start with the basic idea on which the entire thing is predicated: that it’s possible to speak meaningfully about young people’s attitudes while assuming they all think exactly the same, irrespective of their personal circumstances and experiences. Applied to older people, this idea would instantly be seen as preposterous to the point of outright absurdity. No-one would imagine that it is possible to speak about people aged 38–50 as an undifferentiated mass. Everyone would recognise that a beneficiary of a family trust fund in Kensington would have different opinions to a social worker in Easterhouse, and logically the same idea must be equally absurd when it is applied to young people. Unfortunately, this point is never even mentioned, let alone discussed, in the article.

The journalist who commits this oversight is Vicky Spratt, and she’s keen to talk up her personal involvement as a Generation Y-er in the thing she discusses, in what is I guess a kind of ultra-low-octane version of Gonzo. (Nice little Baby Boomer reference for you there. But wait – how can that be? I’m Generation X, so I can’t possibly have any knowledge of anything beyond the slacker comedies, grunge music and unthinking gratification of animalistic urges that the pop demographers of my youth insisted would define me. It couldn’t possibly be that this whole approach of defining people by their birth date is … whisper it … utter nonsense, could it?)

Spratt peppers her article with assertions that do not seem to me entirely convincing. Here she is, for example, discussing what she takes to be a distinctive difference in the way Generation Y copes with financial hardship.

For a while I have noticed a distinct difference between the way my friends and I tended to face problems and the way my parents or grandparents often thought we should face them. […] Can’t find a permanent job? Don’t claim benefits – go freelance. Need money? Sell some stuff on eBay.

‘Go freelance’: well, I think that depends what kind of career you’re working in, don’t you? Ambitious young media professionals – people who are, say, just starting to get bylines on high-profile internet outlets – may well have gone freelance, exactly as their counterparts from Generation X did. But an ambitious young hairdresser who’s got her NVQ but can’t get a junior position in a salon, and can’t afford the equipment and car she’d need to set up as a mobile hairdresser – well, she’s not going freelance, is she? She’s either going to be claiming benefits while she looks for a different job that doesn’t utilise her qualifications, or she’s going to be already working that job, probably on a zero-hours contract (which is like freelancing, only worse – you still have the total lack of job security and employee benefits, but you don’t get to pick when and where you work). I’d be willing to bet that hairdresser might not view the injunction to ‘go freelance’ in exactly the same way as Spratt and her friends.

And ‘sell some stuff on eBay’: well, now, that involves quite a lot of unexamined assumptions, doesn’t it? The assumption that everyone had something that was saleable on eBay in the first place, for example. And the assumption that they haven’t already sold everything that they could last month. And the assumption that the kind of money they need can be made selling stuff they already own on eBay – practical advice if you need an occasional small amount of ready cash, but rather less useful if you need a regular income to buy food every week.

Not to mention the assumption that the Generation Y-ers who sell DVD boxsets on eBay are doing something new – something that is different to what their great-grandparents did when they visited the pawn shop. People who lacked funds have always ducked and dived and scrimped and saved and made do and mended. This myth that everyone before Generation Y was utterly passive and just sat around and waited for the Magical Money Tree to shower them with free cash is precisely that: a myth.

Here’s another of Vicky Spratt’s bold assertions which does not, on further investigation, stand up. A central plank of the assertion that hers is a right-wing generation is their supposed attitude to welfare:

economically we have shifted to the right. One of the unexpected examples of the difference between my generation and those who came before us was the response to the proposition that “the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes”.

While about 40% of those born in 1945 or before still agree with the statement, the numbers tumble as you move down the age range, reaching around half that figure among those aged 33 and under.

Let’s note, to begin with, the misleading use of statistics. In an article about the differences between Generation Y specifically and all those that came before, why report the contrast between Generation Y and people born before 1946? According to Spratt’s own 18–30 definition of the Y-ers, she ought to be making her comparison between the attitudes of those born during and after 1984 with those born before.

The reason, of course, is obvious – Spratt has chosen to make her comparison with people born before 1946 because that group of people are overwhelmingly the most positive about the particular proposition, and that makes her case seem stronger. A comparison between the Y-ers and their immediate predecessors, the X-ers, shows a much smaller difference – as the relevant diagram from the report on which Spratt bases these claims makes clear.

generations

Source

This clearly contradicts Spratt’s assertion that there is a marked generational difference in the Y-ers attitude towards redistributive welfare spending (and hence a marked generational difference in their political orientation). On the contrary, it is apparent that the Y-ers’ attitudes have rarely drifted by more than a few percentage points from those of their immediate predecessors, and are if anything converging with them. This report actually demonstrates that the Y-ers’ attitudes are strikingly similar to those of the X-ers – the precise opposite of the case Spratt attempts to base on it.

You will also note from this diagram that the Y-ers support for redistributive welfare spending remains above its historical low-point in 2009. And that the Y-ers, of all age groups, registered the sharpest increase in support for welfare spending between 2009-10 (when youth unemployment surged). And that their support has declined more slowly after 2010 than that of the X-ers. All of these data points undermine, to a greater or lesser degree, Spratt’s conclusion that the Y-ers are staunchly self-reliant economic individualists, and that they remain implacably hostile to redistributive welfare spending, even in difficult personal circumstances.

There’s something else that you may have noticed about the particular proposition that people were asked to agree or disagree with – that they would support increased welfare spending on the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes. Well, I may be a wizened old Generation X socialist (a libertarian socialist, to be precise), but I’m not sure that even I would agree with the second part of that proposition.

It’s been pretty well-identified in recent years that the leading problem in economies like ours is not that tax rates are too low, but that tax collection is too patchy. That’s been the tenor of almost all the political campaigning over the last few years, including in its youth-dominated manifestations like the Occupy Movement: the unfairness that results from “little people” paying everything they owe (and facing draconian punishment if they don’t) while “big people” – and big corporations – treat the bulk of their taxes as more-or-less optional (and get away with a token slap on the wrist, if they ever are taken to task).

Even I don’t want to see the basic rate of income tax (or VAT, or national insurance) pushed up to boost spending on welfare – at least not until everyone is paying what they already should be. (It’s clearly unreasonable to expect someone with a little to help those who have less, while those who have a lot fail to pull their weight.) And even I don’t think that an increase in overall welfare spending is necessarily the best way of improving the lot of the poor – at least not until everyone who is in work is earning enough to support themselves and their families without claiming benefits. (If employers were required to pay their employees what it costs them to live – and this is, after all, a straightforward part of the cost of doing business – the money the government saved on in-work benefits would allow more generous treatment of those unable to work, without any increase in overall spending.) And if I can see these things then so, too, can someone aged 18–30.

Spratt’s argument that her generation is intrinsically right-wing is based in part on an assumption that everyone who is left-wing must support relentless increases in the proportion of government money spent on welfare. But it’s perfectly possible to be left-wing enough to want to eradicate poverty, and still think that the welfare state should not be involved in providing support to a typical full-time employee. You don’t have to be right-wing to recognise the obvious absurdity of a business that fails to pay its employees a living wage – but does pay that money over in the form of taxes, which are then used to fund the in-work benefits that top up the inadequate pay of its employees. Clearly that “solution” benefits only the bureaucracy which grows fat on a cut of the money it takes from Peter to pay Paul. It would be much better – and result in lower overall welfare spending – if Peter was just told to pay Paul enough to live on in the first place. The left-wing slogan that refers to these matters is “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” not “An unfair day’s pay, but topped up with benefits so the government can look like it’s doing something progressive.”

Spratt also seems at times to misrepresent the young people she quotes in support of her arguments. Take this, for example:

Asked whether her generation would like to see a tougher approach to the welfare system, Molly, a 19-old [sic.] student from London, concurred. “I mean fair enough to the people that literally can’t get a job and have to be on benefits – but I think it’s quite good that our generation feel that way because we’re more inclined to go out there and get a job.”

So what Molly actually said is that it’s ‘fair enough’ that people who can’t get a job should be on benefits, and that it’s ‘quite good’ that people of her age think benefits should be only for people who can’t work because it means ‘we’re more inclined to go out there and get a job.’

There is no evidence here that Molly wants ‘to see a tougher approach to the welfare system,’ as Spratt claims. Out-of-work benefits are already only for those who can’t get a job, not those who don’t want one. Far from arguing for a tougher approach to welfare – more restrictive criteria for claiming, tougher sanctions for people who don’t find a job, cuts in the amount people can claim – Molly has recognised that fairness requires that people who ‘can’t get a job’ should always be looked after.

In endorsing this principle, Molly is endorsing the principle expressed by the generation who first set up the welfare state. The idea that the welfare state is a plot to mollycoddle the lazy is right-wing propaganda, and it’s heartening to see that it hasn’t poisoned Molly’s attitudes. She evidently still believes in the principle of the welfare ‘safety net’ as envisaged at the height of the Second World War. (And, who knows, Molly may become even more pro-welfare when she leaves behind her student days, and recognises – either through her own experiences, or those of her friends – that all kinds of events beyond a person’s own control can impact on their ability to make a living.)

In fact, from reading the comments and opinions attributed to young people in the article it’s clear that this elevation of the concept of fairness to a guiding principle is what defines the social and political attitudes of Generation Y (insofar as it makes sense to talk about an entire generation of people sharing the same attitudes, which is not very far at all). Spratt draws dutiful attention to the fact that Y-ers have ‘moved to the left on social issues’, by which she means that they tend to be positive about immigration, and strongly in favour of equality – both views which are based on the ground that it’s unfair to discriminate against people on the basis of who they are, or where they come from. And she gives almost the last word to 25-year-old Daniel Kidson, who sums up the attitudes of his generation in this way:

They want to support gay marriage. They are relaxed about immigration but they do want to be tough on those who don’t want to contribute to society.

A generation of people who favour equality, even when it is not they themselves who are the victims of inequality. A generation of people who believe so sincerely in the idea of society – and value it so highly – that they want to punish anyone who doesn’t contribute to it. Does that sound to you like a generation that has undergone a ‘shift towards individualism’, as Spratt puts it in her concluding paragraph? Does that sound to you like a generation of right-wingers? Or does that sound to you like a generation who abide by their own version of this principle: “from each according to ability, to each according to need”?

There are selfish people in every generation – people who, in the words of Vicky Spratt, will insist that everyone who can’t get a job just needs to ‘go freelance’, and will assume that everyone who lacks money can just ‘sell some stuff’. But every generation also contains people like Stephen Sutton, the man who decided in the bleakest of personal circumstances to raise millions to help others, and who was, until his recent death, Spratt’s fellow Generation Y-er. He didn’t strike me as an “I’m all right, Jack” individualist, the kind of person who would have thought that it’s wrong to help people because then, as Spratt puts it, ‘they won’t stand on their own two feet, which would be the real evil.’

The truth is I’ve been reading these kinds of “we’re all Thatcher’s children now” articles for decades. I don’t find them any more convincing in 2014, when they’re about the generation after mine, than I did in 1994, when they were about my own. I don’t think that scepticism about the current form of the welfare state translates into a lack of concern for people who need its help, and I don’t accept that there has been any significant generational shift in underlying attitudes. When they talk about these issues, what I see in young people, for the most part, is a commitment to fairness and an instinctive compassion – and I recognise in those enduring values not just the best of my own generation but that of my parents, and my grandparents.

I see no reason to abandon hope for the future. I see no reason to assume that everyone who is younger than me is committed to abandoning the principles of organised compassion and social responsibility which underlie the welfare state. On the contrary, I see young people as those who will ensure that these principles are kept alive in a form appropriate to the coming world. If they saw someone bleeding and unconscious on the road – either literally or metaphorically – most of Generation Y would not pass by on the other side. And that, when it comes right down to it, is all that being a left-winger means: that we do not pass by when there are others who need our help.

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