Brighton, England — Alex McIntyre was raised on budget cuts.
The youth center where he went after school was shuttered when he was 10. When he was 11, his mother’s housing benefit was shaved away, a casualty of the Welfare Reform Act. By the time the streetlight in his cul-de-sac began blinking off at midnight a few years later, these events had knitted together into a single story, about a government policy that had defined his childhood.
“Austerity, that’s what I know, that’s my life,” said Mr. McIntyre. “I’ve never known an England that was a different way.”[
Now 19 and old enough to vote, Mr. McIntyre is making up for lost time. Over the last six months, he was drawn into the center of the Momentum movement, an ideological marketplace buzzing with rebranded socialism and trade unionism. His parents may have gotten their news from The Sun and The Daily Mail, but he listens to reports on the “crisis of capitalism” from Novara Media, a left-wing independent media group. Over Christmas he started reading Marx.
Mr. McIntyre is the first in his family to attend college, part of a vast cohort of young Britons that was meant to embody upward social mobility. It is a paradox that so many in this bulge, like their counterparts in the United States, are giving up on free-market capitalism, convinced it cannot provide their families with a decent life.
The general election of 2017 exposed the starkest generation gap in the recent history of British politics. Young voters broke dramatically for the Labour Party, whose socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has promised to rebuild the welfare state and redistribute wealth. Hardened against the centrists of their parents’ generation, they have tugged the party to the left, opening up rifts that are now fracturing Labour.Rents in Brighton rose faster than anywhere else in England last year, according to Hamptons International, a rental agent. Once Mr. McIntyre moved to the town to study biomedical science, his confidence collapsed.
Students getting their hair cut at Black L’Amour, a Brighton barbershop popular for its low prices. Though the portion of Britons attending college has climbed to 49 percent, the highest level ever, they will graduate into a historic spell of wage stagnation.
The young also saw their views on exiting the European Union — three-quarters of them voted to remain — bulldozed by Leavers their grandparents’ age. Mr. McIntyre is still angry that he was too young, by a year, to vote in that 2016 referendum. He is pale and lanky, discreetly tattooed, caustically funny and so well mannered that he would rather miss his train than cut into a line. (“Being British can be limiting,” he observed.)
He is not representative of a generation. But his grievance is generational: that the state has taken away benefits his parents and grandparents enjoyed, like low-cost housing and free education.
“We’re not blind to it. We’re not stupid, you know,” Mr. McIntyre said. “The reason we’re opposing what’s going on is what we’ve been dealt.”
Britons who came of age in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 will, in many cases, be worse off than their parents. Born on the wrong side of skyrocketing property values, 30-year-olds are only half as likely to own homes as baby boomers were at the same age. A third are expected to rent for their whole lives.
Unlike previous generations, they are expected to foot the bill for an expensive education. The average graduate now owes the government more than 50,800 pounds, or $64,000, a debt to be paid back gradually upon securing a well-paid job, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The portion of Britons attending college has climbed to 49 percent, the highest level ever, but they will graduate into a historic spell of wage stagnation.
Robert Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, recalled Margaret Thatcher’s thesis about homeownership: By allowing low-income Britons to buy the state housing they rented, she could make them into stakeholders in market capitalism, enlarging the Tory Party. With his students, realizing in their 20s that they are not likely ever to own a home, that process has been thrown into reverse.
“All the risk has been shifted onto them,” he said. “They know this is not the situation their parents and grandparents were in. You’ve got a generation since the crisis with lower mobility and lower security. It makes them less convinced that the market delivers good outcomes.”
Subscribe for original insights, commentary and discussions on the major news stories of the week, from columnists Max Fisher and Amanda Taub.SIGN UPMr. McIntyre is part of a bulge of young Britons who are the first in their families to attend university.
Mr. McIntyre, center right, celebrating the series of walkouts and strike actions that he and his friends have organized.
It was a big deal for Alex McIntyre to make it to college.
He comes from a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Welwyn Garden City, north of London, one where life expectancy trails the national average. He grew up in a state-subsidized rental property and attended a school ranked “Requires Improvement” by the state educational inspection agency. His sister had her first child at 16.
Social mobility was a mantra for the Conservative Party during those years. David Cameron promised this in 2010, as he announced the tripling of university tuition fees. Higher fees, he argued, would open up new spots and create better opportunities by encouraging market competition, something closer to the American system.
“We have made our choice,” Mr. Cameron said. “A choice in favor of social mobility, in favor of a fairer society. Of a country where you can escape — truly escape — the circumstances of your birth.”
Mr. McIntyre was a test case for this experiment. He was identified as gifted and enrolled in a charity program, the Social Mobility Foundation. He was sent to stay at Cambridge University, where he ate in a wood-paneled dining hall, served by waiters, an experience he described as “hilarious.” He thrilled his mother by saying he wanted to become a doctor.
But once he arrived at the University of Brighton, that confidence collapsed. Rents in Brighton rose faster than anywhere else in England last year, according to Hamptons International, a rental agent. The room he found, at the top of a musty, water-stained stairway, cost more than his government maintenance loan could cover. When he added up his tuition and maintenance loans, the amount he will repay the government once he is in a secure job, it came to 46,500 pounds, or roughly $61,000. His anxiety was so intense that he tried to get an appointment for medication.The childhood home of Mr. McIntyre, center, near Welwyn Garden City, north of London.
Mr. McIntyre looking at old photographs of Welwyn Garden City, where he grew up.
“It’s that feeling of having absolutely nothing which I don’t want to even go near,” he said.
The panic eased when he found a job as a kitchen assistant at a J.D. Wetherspoon pub. Wetherspoons is Britain’s ubiquitous low-cost restaurant chain, like Applebee’s, but with pints of ale. Its founder, a bluff self-made millionaire named Tim Martin, is an American-style celebrity entrepreneur who counts Walmart’s Sam Walton among his heroes.
Mr. McIntyre worked the fryer, lowering hash browns and sausages in a metal basket into a spitting tub of hot oil, so that his hands were speckled with pinprick burns. He liked the Wetherspoons clientele, including the ones who lined up, shakily, for pints at 8 a.m. “Forgotten people,” he called them.
But he seethed over the pay and working conditions. Five days a week he worked midnight-to-8 a.m. shifts, which left him shaky and ill. Was this adult life, this relentless precariousness? His co-workers did not offer much comfort: A lot of them already had university degrees.
“Other people can’t pay their rent, and I’m a paycheck away from not being able to pay my rent,” he said. He was in this frame of mind when he was approached quietly by a co-worker, who asked him, a little mysteriously, “We’re fed up. Are you fed up?”
A few months later, Mr. McIntyre strode out on to North Street for his first walkout, accompanied by their union rep from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, demanding a minimum wage of £10 an hour. The strikers looked nothing like the coal miners of the 1980s printed on Britain’s collective memory; they were sons and daughters of the middle class, wearing wallet chains and leopard skin pants and Doc Martens. “You are already trending, No. 6 on Twitter,” whooped the union rep. “Solidarity from Plovdiv, Bulgaria!” someone shouted.
Afterward, Mr. McIntyre was so exhilarated that he barely slept. “I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee, thinking, ‘What just happened?’ ” he said a little later. “This is not the end. It is the first step in something big.”
He had passed into the world of the young left that has coalesced in Brighton, a bohemian university town. It is a world of anticapitalist workshops, anarchist retreats, “red gyms” and rent strikes, and it is embodied by Mr. Corbyn, 69, a grandfatherly socialist who was dismissed as an anachronism during the centrist era of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Mr. McIntyre said he encountered new ideas every day now, like food on a cafeteria shelf. He met Callum Cant, a tall, thin, erudite doctoral student who has organized a Marx reading group for employees at Wetherspoons and edits Notes from Below, an online journal on “self-emancipation of the working class from capitalism and the state.”
Mr. Cant, 24, who comes from a wealthy village in Hampshire, arrived at college in 2014 and was swept into protests against austerity and tuition hikes. He never drifted back to the path his parents expected of him, toward a job in London finance or journalism.
“I get teased about coming from a private school among comrades,” he said. “But I got a look at what their lives were like. They weren’t happy. They weren’t fulfilled.”Callum Cant, center, describes capitalism as “a threat to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
A group of young Wetherspoons employees met up with strikers from McDonald’s and T.G.I. Friday’s as they arrived in London last year for a rally to demand fairer pay and better working conditions at the Wetherspoons public house chain.
Now, he is one of the group of hipster leftists who broadcast over Novara Media.
One of them, the 26-year-old Ash Sarkar, thrilled left-wing Twitter in a televised debate this summer by eye-rolling Piers Morgan, one of Britain’s most famous journalists, who had mistaken her for a garden-variety Labour activist. “I’m a communist, you idiot!” she told him, throwing him a withering look reserved for the young who disdain the old. “I’m literally a communist!” (Novara now charges £15 for T-shirts with this quote.)
Mr. McIntyre wasn’t certain where he stood on Marx, but he did feel at home with the trade union guys. A future was taking shape in Mr. McIntyre’s mind, complete with new friends and new ideas — the thing, in other words, that college had been supposed to provide.
He wasn’t sure, anymore, about going into medicine. He called his mother one day to give her this news.
“I thought I wanted to be a scientist, but I love politics,” he said later. “There are amazing opportunities with the bakers’ union.”
He was, he acknowledged, of two minds, having invested so many years in preparing for college. “I’ve accrued half the debt, it would be quite dumb of me to completely abandon what I’ve worked years for,” he said. “On the other hand, my passion for what I do at uni has dwindled.”Young Wetherspoons employees preparing placards for a series of walkouts and strike actions.
Protesters showing off their matching “Anti Capitalista” tattoos.CreditMary Turner for The New York Times
She listened to him quietly and hung up the phone, he said. A single mother, she had worked two or three jobs the whole time he was growing up and still takes in ironing for extra cash. His applications to college had been thrilling for her, and she went through the choices with him, one by one.
“She wants me to have a better future,” he said. “For her, that is going to university, getting a degree, earning loads of money.”
The next day she called to tell him to stay in school. He said he would.
At home for the holidays, he was warned not to discuss politics with his Thatcherite grandparents, and tiptoed around the subject. No one in his life has brought up the bitter, divisive strikes of the 1970s and ’80s, which soured public opinion against the labor movement.
“Either they are left-wing or they aren’t political at all,” he said. “That’s young people. That’s us.”
Mr. McIntyre has begun to count the months until he will graduate and throw himself into full-time activism.
Before Christmas he was invited by the bakers’ union president, Ian Hodson, to speak to students in the left-wing stronghold of Liverpool. He drank pints of beer with veteran organizers, men with meaty forearms who spoke to him in a Lancashire twang about Maggie Thatcher and the Peasants’ Revolt. On his way home he stopped by a picket of shipbuilders at Liverpool’s docks, his first old-school industrial picket line.
He was bleary, after nightclubbing with the bakers’ union president until 3 the night before, and wheeling a carry-on bag behind him.
Then he saw what he had been looking for: the gray hulk of the Cammell Laird plant, and two dozen workers warming their hands over a fire in a steel barrel. They were picketing over layoffs, and complained that they had been replaced by Romanians. A half-finished icebreaker loomed at the pier, its deck crawling with tiny figures. “This is Franny, he built the Titanic,” joked one of the men, and offered Mr. McIntyre a bacon sandwich.
“It’s so inspiring,” Mr. McIntyre said. “It gives me goose bumps.”
He picked up a union banner and walked out to the roadway to hold it for a few minutes, trying to make eye contact with the drivers. Cargo trucks were barreling by and drenching his feet in plumes of water.
A few of them saw him. A van marked “compressed air” honked. A street sweeper honked. So did a flatbed truck loaded with wooden pallets. Mr. McIntyre grinned. He was at home. “I love it,” he said.Britons who came of age in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 will, in many cases, be worse off than their parents.