Cadets line up as they attend a Commonwealth Day Ceremony at Memorial Gate on March 11, 2024 in London. Picture Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

National disservice

Young people have little to be grateful for, so why should they “give back”?

Artillery Row

The latest, improbable, policy proposal of a floundering Tory election campaign is mandatory national service for the nation’s teenagers. As previously explored in the Critic, there are questions as to its military and civic usefulness in the modern world, as well as its costs and practicality. But leave that aside. Is it right in principle?

I’m intuitively sympathetic to any policy that seeks to instill a sense of duty and belonging in the young, ideas that are all too absent today. The ideal of serving your society as you reach adulthood, of “giving something back”, is a powerful one. 

What about what society offers young people merits such devotion?

The basic problem of this proposal of national service, when proposed by this government, at this time, in this society, is that it is wrong on the very basis of the reciprocity and ethic of service it claims to instill. How can the government ask young people to “give back” when it has spent the past 14 years taking from them? 

In pure money terms, young people are losing out. Government cuts have fallen disproportionately on the young, from the withdrawal of the EMA (the educational maintenance allowance), to the introduction and increase of tuition fees, to spending on culture, education and benefits. Wages have stagnated or declined, whilst costs have increased. Housing has become unaffordably expensive. And those who have benefited, relatively or absolutely, are older generations, whose pensions have been ringfenced, benefits protected and houses gone up in value. 

The latest election promise from the Conservatives is that pensioners should pay even fewer taxes and enjoy a “quadruple lock” (in case pensions weren’t gold plated enough). Labour, if not quite so lavish, has promised to leave pensions untouched — a promise not forthcoming for any other section of the public in receipt of state benefits. Not only have we seen resources transferred from the working and middle classes to the rich, we have seen them go from the young to the old. 

Our culture, meanwhile, has served young people no better than our economy. Rather than free range childhoods, young people are shuttled from activity to activity (or just left in their rooms) by anxious parents. Though sheltered from normal social interaction and healthy, manageable levels of risks, they are left entirely exposed to the harmful effects of technology and social media; overstimulated and para-socialised by omnipresent devices provided by unhelpful parents. That same older generation, and the leaders selected from it, have failed to pass on our nation’s culture, ideals and traditions, both in classrooms and at home. Instead, young people were taught that if they developed fuzzily defined and universally applicable “skills”, they could get ahead in a market economy, which would provide ever-expanding growth and prosperity. 

Given all this, how can the country’s leaders and older generation turn round to young people and suddenly demand they play good little citizens and soldiers, and do their civic duty? What about our schools and homes has prepared young people for such a duty? What about what society offers young people merits such devotion? Nothing at all, as should be obvious to anyone.

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