Miles Johnson

Anthem for doomed youth

Britain’s greying post-war generation are getting increasingly used to a bad press.

Anthem for doomed youth
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Jilted Generation

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik

Icon Books, pp. 256, £

Britain’s greying post-war generation are getting increasingly used to a bad press.

Britain’s greying post-war generation are getting increasingly used to a bad press. Once lauded for liberating British society, the teenyboppers of the 1960s are now vilified for squandering a time of plenty, having mortgaged their children’s futures to fund a reckless, debt-fuelled shopping spree.

The Baby Boomers’ thirst for property speculation, their younger critics lament, has transformed the UK housing market into a vicious collusion between rack-rent retirees and latte-crazed estate agents.

For the young, owning a house has become a distant dream. Bright-eyed graduates pump the bulk of their income into subsidising the Boomers’ buy-to-let investments, scrambling for the chance of a no-pay internship in the vague hope of a life of low pay in a moribund labour market.

And on their youthful shoulders rests a national debt so large it won’t be paid off until the day they die, with the prospect of retiring before 65 likely to be relegated to a fanciful 20th-century luxury.

For Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, authors of Jilted Generation, British youth now face the most uncertain future since the 1930s. Identifying the eponymous generation as those born after 1979 — the first UK school year to pay university tuition fees — the authors argue that a country where the young have lost out even during the giddiest boom in living memory has effectively auto- cannibalised.

Older readers could be forgiven for a weary sigh. Did the much maligned Boomers not toil for their houses, pay into their pensions and contribute to the national coffers through taxes? The 1960s and 70s were surely not a golden age where debt-free graduates sauntered down from university into dream jobs and glamorous accommodation. Why do the youth of today feel they deserve to have it easy?

But Jilted Generation is not a brattish rant about entitlement. The reader is not presented with a diatribe on the unattainability of a two-bedroom flat in north London. Howker and Malik extend their analysis beyond an it’s-not-fair tantrum to knit together a taut and analytically rigorous narrative of 25 years of political myopia and mismanagement, outlining a series of gross policy errors that have disproportionately benefited the old at the expense of the young. These mistakes are likely to loom large over the UK for decades.

The one-time-only bonanza of Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme has left Britain with a hole in its social housing that has never been filled. Failure by successive governments to build new houses has coincided with a 276 per cent rise in the average UK house price since 1990, and a ruinous credit bubble.

Britain now has some of the highest levels of youth unemployment in its modern history. Government drives to send more than half of the population to university, assuming hulking debts in the process, will be catastrophic if the economy fails to create the jobs that require such training.

And disastrously for anyone likely still to be alive by 2040, the UK’s pay-as-you-go state pension scheme has unfunded liabilities of an estimated £1.4 trillion. In 30 years’ time ten million Britons will be over 75. The young will pay. Policy-makers have been able to forecast this for decades, yet little action has been taken. Not having saved some of the cash generated by Britain’s North Sea oil into a national fund like Norway looks ever more foolish.

Most of all, Howker and Malik conclude, such gaffes were symptomatic of the centre ground-chasing, poll-driven nature of British politics over the past 30 years. And underpinning this new politics was a maturing of the broader Boomer quest for personal freedoms into an individualistic, and narrowly economic, concept of liberty — a shift expertly exploited by both Thatcher and Blair to win successive elections.

Short-term politics leads to long-term strategic errors, and until the custodian, rather than quotidian, becomes a viable style of government in the UK, books like Jilted Generation will be written for generations to come.