It must be asked how or if Boris Johnson expects any young people to vote for him. Of course, young people are not the most promising demographic for the Tories anyway. Not only have their brains been marinated in popular culture, but they are less likely than people in their thirties, forties and so on to be parents and homeowners. Winston Churchill never said “if you’re not a liberal when you’re twenty-five, you have no heart” but there are good reasons why we find it easy to imagine that he did.
Still, you have to wonder what the government has against the young. Young people have wasted a lot of their prime working, dating and travelling years in the fight against a virus that poses minimal risk for most of them. That is not to say that older people have been enjoying themselves. The pandemic has been miserable for most of us. But young people had the least to gain from their sacrifice.
So, how are they being rewarded? Well, the government effectively killed off planning reform — a dangerous, complicated subject, to be sure, but an urgent one when housing prices have been rising at rates so much faster than household income. To fund Britain’s gargantuan social care system, the government also raised taxes in a manner that will hit young people hardest — leaving assets alone. Now, according to the Financial Times, Rishi Sunak is considering lowering the earnings threshold at which people have to start repaying their student loans.
It is hard to get people to sympathise with teenagers
The FT reports that this is aimed not just towards filling Britain’s national coffers but discouraging young people from taking “soft” courses if they do not have to. You will find no bigger advocate than yours truly of having fewer people at universities. Still, picking ten universities at random and insisting on their prompt and comprehensive demolition would be a better strategy than this. It will mostly hit young people on starting salaries — people on the level of teachers and nurses — and I doubt that it will even lead young people to make more far-sighted decisions. If I was improvident enough to choose creative writing as an 18-year-old, would this have made a difference? I am not sure what the hell I was thinking at the time, but it cannot have been about my career prospects.
It is hard to get people to sympathise with teenagers and young adults (whose ranks, I should add lest I be accused of being self-interested, I recently left). According to research conducted by New Scientist and the Policy Institute at Kings College London, almost half of British adults “lean towards thinking young people have been selfish during the pandemic, ignoring restrictions on their freedoms”, even though young people have if anything been more compliant.
One response is that most people from older generations did not have the chance to go to university. This is true but misleading. In the 21st century, going to university means much less and not going to university means much more. Someone born in 1950, for example, could become a police officer without spending three years of his life getting a degree. Someone born in 2000 does not have that choice.
Another potential response is that previous generations worked harder. There is some truth to that. Leisure time has risen. But work meant more in real terms fifty years ago. Average wages have grown a little more than half as much as average house prices since 1970. A rising retirement age in Britain also means that young people are set to work for longer than their grandparents did.
Generational inequality has dark implications for the social contract
Thirdly, of course, there is a stereotype of young people as being moaning, snarling, placard-waving lefties stuck in eternal studenthood. There is truth to it, of course. But who is more to blame for the mad ideas that proliferate in higher education, the students who swallow them or the teachers who teach them? If young adults face a bleaker future under a Conservative government, meanwhile, is it any surprise if they drift leftwards?
None of this is meant to set generations against each other. Older people suffered more from COVID-19 in terms of health and mortality. It would be childish to imagine that pensioners are sipping wine on the verandas of their country homes en masse when many of them are struggling in underfunded care homes or shivering as energy prices mount.
Still, I do not think it is unfair to suggest that the government is generally more receptive to the needs of older voters. Older voters, after all, are liable to deliver them disasters in by-elections. Of course, the interests of all age groups should be respected. But those of younger people deserve more consideration than they are being granted at present. It is the right thing to do, but it is also short-sighted to do otherwise.
While declines in birth rates are not wholly reducible to economics, for example, higher housing costs do seem to discourage family formation. “Kids take space!” writes Lyman Stone of the Institute for Family Studies. “If young people are stuck in smaller houses than in the past, or in more unstable or expensive housing situations, it could reduce fertility.” One report from Matt Kilcoyne of the Adam Smith Institute estimated that over 150,000 fewer children were born in the UK between 1996 and 2014 due to housing costs. Needless to say, having young people around is in the interests of older people as well as their own.
In broader terms, rising generational inequality has dark implications for the social contract — especially if there is a silent understanding that it will be open to amendments at the exclusive expense of certain parties. It is easy to gripe about “boomers” and “millennials”, but in more human terms we should maintain warm relationships between grandparents and kids.
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