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Status anxiety

The government makes for Hay while the sun shines

Toby Young suffers from Status Anxiety

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

2 June 2010

12:00 AM

I’m writing this from the Hay Festival which seems to be populated by an unusually large number of government ministers. I spotted Michael Gove wandering along Newport Street eating an ice cream on Sunday afternoon and later this week I’m hoping to catch Nick Clegg being interviewed by Philippe Sands. If this annual gathering of the liberal intelligentsia is anything to go by, the Guardian-reading classes are completely at ease with the coalition government.

This was evident in a very good-humoured event I attended at which Jon Snow, the urbane Channel 4 newsreader, interviewed David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science. Willetts is in town to promote The Pinch, his attack on the Baby Boomers for feathering their nest at the expense of their children. He has calculated that by the end of their lives the Boomers will have taken out 118 per cent of what they’ve put in, leaving the next generation with smaller houses, higher taxes and a degraded environment. They are guilty of breaking the inter-generational social contract.

If Two Brains has got his sums right, this is bad news for Generation X and even worse for Generation Y. According to some research carried out by Professor Paul Harvey at the University of Hampshire, those born in the 1980s and 1990s combine an overweening sense of entitlement with practically no work ethic. In a psychological test designed to measure just how narcissistic they are, they scored 25 per cent higher than those aged 40-60 and 50 per cent higher than those over 61.


‘Even if they fail miserably at a job, they still think they’re great at it,’ says Harvey. ‘It stems from the self-esteem movement, telling kids, “You’re great, you’re special.”’

The implication of this is that when Generation Y reaches full maturity and is forced to pay the price for the overindulgence of the Boomer generation they will experience a moment of crippling disillusionment. Having dreamt of a life of personal fulfilment, imagining themselves fronting rock’n’roll bands, they will wake up in council houses in the suburbs of Birmingham, unable to afford the petrol to power their Nissan Micras.

Admittedly, it’s hard to suppress a smile when conjuring up this scenario, but both Generation X and Y deserve our sympathy according to Willetts. Not only will they have less opportunities than the generation born between 1945 and 1965, but what few there are will be concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority. The class that Keynes referred to as the ‘educated bourgeoisie’ has become extremely skilled at adapting to the supposedly ‘meritocratic’ culture of modern Britain. Among the families of the professional upper middle class there has been an impressive focus on getting their children to leap the various hurdles that Britain’s major public schools and ancient universities place in their path, such as competitive entrance examinations. The upshot is that the majority of children born since 1965 will have no chance of having fulfilling careers. ‘The competition for jobs is like English tennis — a competitive game but largely one the middle classes play against each other,’ says Willetts.

During the Q&A session afterwards, I couldn’t resist asking Willetts about the government’s abandonment of the inheritance tax cut and its plans to raise Capital Gains Tax from 18 to 40 per cent. Was this a cunning plan to prevent the privileged elite transferring their assets to their children in the interests of levelling the playing field?

Absolutely not, he said. How much CGT will rise by and whether it will include some relief for those who’ve held assets for longer than one year is still under discussion. He gave a similar reply in response to a question by the Guardian’s Ian Katz, who asked whether he intended to ring-fence the environmental research grants in the science budget given his concern for the welfare of future generations. ‘We haven’t cut them yet,’ he said.

It was encouraging to witness this civilised exchange, almost as if the rapprochement between the Tories and Lib Dems has resulted in a thawing of relations across the political spectrum. However, I suspect that this mutual regard will turn sour after the Emergency Budget. As soon as the cuts are announced it will be back to business as usual between the Tories and the Guardianistas. I doubt Gove, Clegg and Willetts will be at Hay next year.


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