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A Jilted Generation?

Fri, 29th Oct 2010

Oh, how I wanted to hate this book1. That grating note of injured victimhood: the very title sets your teeth on edge. Yet another attack on the baby boomers. As if it was their fault they were born in the explosion of fertility that followed the most horrific war in history – in which many of them lost family and almost everyone someone or something precious. As for the optimistic aspirations of the 1960s – at least they had some. And guilt at having (eventually) bought houses and signed up (the lucky ones) for pensions? Grow up, get a life, get a job!

By the time I finished Ed Howker and Shiv Malik’s book, I was still boiling – but not at them. I still think the baby boomer angle is sensationalist and unhelpful: generations are too slippery to be useful units of analysis, let alone blame (as one cross friend said to me on his 46th birthday: ‘What about us? Our parents are going to live to 100, and our kids are still at home because they can’t get jobs or houses!’).

Above all aiming at their grandparents deflects attention from the real culprit – which the thrust of their case makes abundantly clear. What they eloquently trace is the consequences of a breathtakingly foolhardy 30-year (not 60-year) experiment in dismantling the state and individualising responsibility that has led straight to the debt crisis we face today.

As the authors note, this was a deliberate political project. Dazzled by the hard-edged arguments of Chicago monetarists, Margaret Thatcher (who hated the baby boomers) and co-ideologues in subsequent governments acted out the belief that the state wasn’t just inefficient: it was hostile to the individual. In this view, public service was an oxymoron, public employees of all kinds pursuing their own interests at the expense of those of citizens (think Yes, Minister). Since the latter could be relied on to know what they wanted, the argument ran, let’s get rid of the former and allow the marketplace – an instant information processor, in contrast to the hopelessly clumsy proceses of democracy – to coordinate needs and provision without bureaucratic interference. Even better: since markets are efficient and tastes constant, there was little need to plan for the future at all!

In a wealth of charts and tables, Howker and Malik lay out the price of this institutionalised short-termism for three things that matter most to young adults: jobs, housing and inheritance. These chapters are urgent, surprising and enraging. They show how at every turn human beings pirouette around rigid economic theory as effortlessly as foreign footballers past dim English defenders. In housing, they demonstrate how the great council-house sell-off and deregulation have bequeathed us a housing stock and tenancy regime (respectively poky, expensive and insecure) that meet the needs of buy-to-let investors but not those of young adults wanting a home. In jobs, the dropping of full employment as a political goal has been just as counterproductive. Far from being a consequence of Labour welfarism, the ‘benefits explosion’ that George Osborne is now trying to rein in is the direct result of Thatcherite deregulation – the counterpart to rising unemployment and, even more striking, a race to the bottom in employment in which more and jobs, particularly for young people, are so badly paid that they have to be supplemented by handouts from the state. Subsidising skinflint employers now accounts for a large part of the £90bn benefits budget.

As the book shows, abandoning collective responsibility for the future had other dire consequences, notably the crumbling of the apprenticeship system and the casual shrugging off, still proceeding, of pension obligations (let alone career). Free university education went the same way. Paradoxically, Conservative and New Labour governments that lectured the 1960s generation so sternly about living within today’s means were being as profligate with tomorrow’s as a flash City trader on his third bottle of Bolly. Unlike Norway, which quaintly funnelled North Sea oil revenue into a sovereign wealth fund for collective benefit, we blew it. Likewise the £60 bn proceeds of privatisation. And no, as our authors point out, the unleashed private sector proved no better at investment than the public, chief executives quickly twigging that the simplest way to win City kudos (and lavish bonuses) was to slash investment, research and jobs. Meanwhile, like a desperate gambler, governments have thrown around off-balance-sheet IOUs like confetti. Through the PFI, capital projects worth £56bn will end up costing £267bn.

Labour Treasury chief secretary Liam Byrne’s cheeky note to his coalition successor that the cupboard was bare was no joke. There’s nothing left to sell or pawn. Howker and Malik are right to dig through that flippancy to expose how successive governments have bet (and lost) the farm on a barren economic formula. This month’s savage cuts are payback not just for bankers, but for three decades of voodoo economics. We should applaud their forensic skill in exposing the rarely discussed assumptions than have led us where we are, and in setting out the consequences in concrete terms. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are less convincing in putting forward remedies, however. It will certainly take more than the mild doses of social enterprise and employee ownership that the authors suggest.

Yet it defies belief that that a nation with Britain’s resources should be going backwards in terms of simple basics that matter most to most people. To change that, it’s not the fringe manifestations of capitalism that have to shift, but the brutal and unrealistic economic credo at its heart. Putting forward a political programme that does that is the real challenge for the jilted generation – and one that the baby boomers, forgiving the brickbats, will support all the way.

1 Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth, Ed Howker and Shiv Mali, Icon Books: London 2010


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