'The expected recession will hit young adults hardest,' BBC presenter, Jonny Dymond, said on 'The World This Weekend’. Almost half the programme was then given over to the dire future that awaits the UK’s 18-24 year olds, with the prospect that a million of them could become unemployed. The latest ‘Weekend Woman’s Hour’ offered a package in the same vein, as did the BBC website, with a feature headlined: ''We feel so lost' - Young face job despair.'
Nor is it just the BBC. The media has been full of Cassandras from a variety of London-based think-tanks and plush addresses forecasting, with the same categorical certainty, that the chief victims of the pandemic will be the young. Not only will they end up footing the considerable financial bill, but their life chances will be blighted forever.
Nowhere – except occasionally in the social media or the notorious 'below-the-line' comments in print – will you find any challenge to the twin views that (a) the young – variously defined as today’s 18-24s or 18-30s – will be uniquely hard-hit and (b) that the older generation should feel very guilty about the sacrifices (i.e. the lockdown and its consequences) the young are supposedly making on their behalf. The rallying cry, as Dymond put it despairingly, is 'how will we save generation Covid?'
For those with eyes to see and ears to hear there has been just one small chink in the solid wall of this argument; identified, as it happens, by the generation-warriors at the Resolution Foundation. In a report headed 'Young workers in the coronavirus crisis' (19 May), they found that, while 35 per cent of workers aged 18-24 were taking home less than at the beginning of the year, so were 30 per cent of those in their early 60s. And, while some 20 per cent of 18-29 year olds had been made redundant or placed on furlough, so had 18 per cent of those aged 60-64.
While most media outlets were seduced by the title, the report’s author, Maja Gustafsson, said that young people were therefore not the only group whose income was suffering. This was, she said, 'a U-shaped living-standard crisis, with workers in their early 60s also badly affected'.
But the argument should not stop here, with these very narrow sets of figures – which anyway come at a very early stage in this crisis and its aftermath. There is a big difference between how redundancy or a pay cut is likely to affect a 20-something as opposed to a 60-something. Yes, you can argue that disadvantages at the start of a working life – not just a pay cut or redundancy, but a delay to a degree or a lack of internships or a drop in entry-level positions (all cited as representing terrible Covid-related setbacks to the young) – may have a 'scarring effect' every year down the line. But for those from their late 50s onwards, the implications can be catastrophic.
The young have time, and the 18-24s have a lot of it, to make up some of the difference, with whatever help the government of the day feels inclined to give. For those whose working life is drawing to a (perhaps sudden and premature) close, however, or for those already in retirement on modest fixed incomes, there is no time. The prospects of another job or re-training are negligible.
This group will lose years of pension contributions, with pension pots (outside the gold-plated public sector) already severely depleted, first by the quantitative easing introduced in response to the financial crisis and now by the economic fall-out from the pandemic. Inflation is forecast to rise, perhaps sharply. The price of property, which is for many people their only asset, could fall. Interest rates are at a record low and heading into negative territory. Cheap credit penalises the older generation (which obediently saved for their future) to the huge advantage of the borrowing young.
But it is not only – or chiefly – about finances. Charities and advocacy groups are rightly drawing attention to how the mental health of the young is being harmed under lockdown, as are the articulate young themselves. And there are undoubtedly strains in households confined to cramped accommodation. But where are those advocating for the mental health of older people, many not just in lockdown, but long-term self-isolation?
Perspective is needed. A couple of months of restricted socialising when your whole life lies ahead is one thing. To be deprived of contact with family and friends, to be confined to your home as the time for resuming all the activities that made life worthwhile diminishes by the day is quite another. No wonder people talk of older relatives who have just given up.
All of which poses the question of why the gauge of suffering, immediate or longer-term, is so skewed towards the young. One reason might be the near-monopoly of certain well-funded think-tanks that focus on the supposed economic disadvantages of the millennials. Then perhaps there is the age and limited life experience of today’s researchers, commissioning editors and media producers.
But a third has to be the guilt felt by well-heeled parents and grandparents, who have swallowed the line that their well-being has essentially been bought at the expense of subsequent generations. In fact, the majority of older people in the UK are not well-heeled. They are on average better off than they were a generation ago, but still poorer than many of their contemporaries abroad, and they will now be penalised all over again by the social, financial and indeed health fall-out from coronavirus. The young may face hardships in the coming years, but they have something their elders do not, which is, crucially, time on their side.