It’s little wonder young people the world over are demanding political change
The National, by Michael Gray
You just don’t understand!” is a traditional moan of the younger generation. When it comes to politics – especially for those of a more cut-off conservative vintage – it may actually be true.
With Scottish independence, the election of Jeremy Corbyn and now the surge of US socialist Bernie Sanders, the growth of youth-filled political movements surprised many and has been even less well explained.
Why, when the established consensus opposed these ideas, have young people gone in the opposite direction?
Every generation has defining political moments. Ours is the 2008 banking crisis: the burning emblem of economic insecurity. For eight years it has acted as a ceremonial head stone, a weight passed from the neck of one generation to the next. Yes, there were many lies about tuition fees. The war in Iraq. The expenses scandal. All together they reflect the gradual withering of the post-war settlement and trust in established politics among the young.
Economic insecurity is the state of play for most young people – especially in housing and work. In 1997 home ownership for the under-35s sat at almost 60 per cent, with private renters just above 20 per cent. In one generation that has switched round to 53 and 25 per cent respectively.
Where previously young people were a hop, skip and a jump away from the housing ladder, they will now plough an estimated £64,000 into rent before making any first purchase – if they get there at all. Those rents are now more expensive than ever before, in short tenancies with limited rights for occupiers.
An analyst for Savills estate agent opined: “Rather than creating a nation of home ownership, it appears that we may have created a generation (or two) of homeowners and we are now faced with its gradual decline.”
Voices in the media who laud higher house prices may as well be speaking another language as far as young people are concerned. For baby boomers with assets, each increase sends champagne corks popping. For the young that noise is a door slamming in their face.
The employment market is little better. The buzzword is “precariat” – a social class stuck in temporary, insecure, low-paid jobs. More than half a million people are in zero-hours contracts, three times higher than when the Tories took power in 2010. In Scotland this is dominated by the service sector.
Look up in your restaurants, cafes, shops. Listen to the drone of call centre staff. More often than not, it will be a young employee making little more than the minimum wage. If you’re generous enough to leave a tip, best check you’re not in a venue where the managers keep it for themselves.
Alienation, as Jimmy Reid vividly described, is rampant. I’ve seen it. Teenagers rushing with plates through kitchens. Temporary security workers bussed en masse in and out of Glasgow. "Freelance" contracts where payment arrives months too late. The culture of internships and nepotism – where the ability to work for free is valued above all else.
Is it any surprise that so many young people want to break the political consensus that has failed them? Is it any wonder that this desire is misunderstood when corporate institutions -Westminster, banks, energy companies, major landlords, most of the media – are uninterested in changing an economic system that has benefited them at the expense of the young?
Understood or not, it impacts politics. Despite the weakness of traditional institutions (trade unions and tenant associations) to protect the exploited, young people are rebuilding them.
The Living Rent Campaign, led by this "millennial" generation, is winning the case for private tenancy reform in Scotland. At the weekend youth campaigners from "Better than Zero" targeted the bar venues of the G1 Group in Glasgow, which is notorious for its poor pay.
A system of increasing generational inequality will not hold. It must be reformed or the system will break. The next generation are powerful. In Greece and Spain, where the young and precarious were hardest hit following the crash, the old political consensus has already ended. In America the pundits have been stunned by the rise of “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders. And few have recognised that the same political forces returned a majority for Scottish independence among the young.
Those demands won’t disappear before May’s Scottish elections.
The solutions require greater government intervention, in housing and the labour market, than the Scottish Government is willing to support. It’s easier – as we’ll see frequently in the next few months – to shoehorn "youth issues" into a debate on education and free university tuition.
Never mind that free tuition only applies to undergraduates (if I went through with applying for law it would cost me about £50,000 over three years) and it’s the cost of living that is a greater barrier to university access.
Solutions that would benefit everyone include rent controls and a £10/hour minimum wage, alongside an overdue debate on how the "housing market" is entrenching inequality. Which politicians will step forward?
Anyone who cares about reducing inequality, the main issue for the upcoming election, must understand how certain issues hit vulnerable young people the hardest.
This can be done without a generation war – where the debts of the young are contrasted with the benefits for the old.
If you’re poor in Scotland, young or old, you struggle to buy food and heat your home.
But it is the old, disproportionately, who have access to power and wealth.
And it is their duty to hear the calls for change and understand why the noise is building from below.