Sunday, January 18, 2009

you can't blame the youth of today

I'm increasingly annoyed by official-media consensus that young people will suffer more than anyone else from the recession. Not that I especially doubt this; I doubt the reasoning, which appears to be that they've all gone soft and they're not like we were in my day. As a general principle, I believe this is usually wrong, being unfalsifiable and all, and also being a projection of one's own fear of death.

But on the specific case, I dispute the facts. It wasn't a great time to be young; by definition, when you're young your only source of income is wages, and the labour share of national income has been flat for years. Indeed, real wages have been flat for donkey's years. A personal example; I was offered a job at Euromoney Institutional Investor on a salary of £16,000 per year, but on a six-month contract. Even at Mobile Comms International, it was a while before I was earning more an hour than I had been Pritt-Sticking the flaps of substandard envelopes whilst waiting for Bradford City's second season in the Premier League. However, it improved, and I'm well aware I learnt a hell of a lot there. I spent around 20% of my post-tax income on my railway season ticket.

At the same time, both rents and house prices shot through the roof. This was crucial; the whole idea that home-owners got rich from the rise in the value of their property was dependent on someone buying it from them. People retiring and trading-down was a factor that had to match people trading-up; at bottom, there had to be first-time buyers, who are generally young. The net effect of right-to-buy and the great property bull run was to transfer wealth from first-time buyers to sellers; in the aggregate, the Bank of Mum and Dad was borrowing from the kids.

And, of course, there were tuition fees, top-up fees, and for a cohort including me, both the fees and no student grants. Meanwhile, we were told we ought to consume and keep the economy going, take part in the creative industries and volunteer, but do this while joining the job market, to borrow heavily to pay for further and higher education, to accumulate savings on deposit, to save for retirement (or in other words, to pay others' pensions), that we were a bunch of unserious greenies, that we were politically apathetic, that we would face the consequences of climate change (after it became respectable to worry), that we were all drug fiends and music characterised by repetitive beats was against the law, that we weren't getting on the housing ladder, that we were borrowing too much money (this from the people who brought you Citigroup) and that people who were slightly younger ought to be punished for playing hooky in order to demonstrate against the Iraq war. To cap the lot, we were told we were drinking too much. If we were, who could guess why?

Actually, if I was younger, I think I'd be delighted by the crisis. I've got plenty of schadenfreude and indeed klammheimliche Freude as it is. Things I need (somewhere to live, somewhere to do interesting things) are likely to get cheap, and me minus five years doesn't care about the cost of huge cars or Vertu mobile phones because he doesn't have any money but does have more sense. The strength of ideological drivel is reduced; there has been a catastrophe in the intellectual environment, a meteorite has plunged into the credibility of the market monkeys, and as usual, this is followed by an adaptive radiation, a blossoming of new species into new or newly unoccupied niches.

Even when me minus five years starts working for the clampdown, at least he or she gets to save for their retirement in a low asset price world, and to bore me minus ten years with tales about how they staged bio-hacking parties in abandoned bank C-level offices, and how this gets them off inevitably joining the Conservative Party, or functional equivalent. Which is, after all, the claim to intellectual legitimacy of most of the people who spent all that time ordering me to simultaneously save, work, borrow, volunteer, spend, rebel, invest, and obey.

I suppose they must have meant one of those.


Richard Young said...

Mmm - more TYR goodness. Terrific post and one that me-minus-15-years is sending to my mum.

I "joined the labour market" in 1992, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I did I job I disliked for poor money - but which involved decent training and picking up really valuable skills I didn't know I needed. (OK, it was advertising sales - but Personal Computer World was a truly inspiring mag in those days.) If I'd been picking and choosing - or if jobs were ten-a-penny - I might not have stuck it out as long as I did and learn as much about publishing and myself in the process.

The ones I fee sorry for are those who started work between 1996 and 2006. They probably have unrealistic expectations and aren't nearly so battle hardened. But this crop will do fine.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. Many things well said.

guthrie said...

Richard young- you describe me, a little. I came out onto the jobs market in 2000, with science degrees, having swallowed the propaganda about degrees being good, but also being just old enough to have avoided tuition fees and having parents with just enough spare cash and my own ability to live off peanuts, that I didn't have student loans either.

Only to find that there was no demand for such as I except as brainless temps. So much for the propaganda. Fortunately through starting with people like Pilger and Monbiot and working onto harder stuff, and later on, the internet, it was clear that the system was fucked up and it wasn't my fault. Thus I have been able to maintain some calm and get on with doing what I want to do rather than what the system wants me to do.

On the other hand, i don't see certain prices falling as much as they ought to in order to make living much easier for new graduates. If we do get another 20 or 30% decrease in housing prices it might do too much damage and the recession will be prolonged. And in a highly specialised world, (division of labour, remember, its more efficient until something goes wrong) there is much less room for a bit of wheeling and dealing and making do and mend.

The thing abotu real wages is also an important point- here and in the USA, it seems that real wages stagnated all through the boom, but the rich and owners made off with billions of pounds of profits. Thus demonstrating the wrongness of the rising tide mantra.

Sir S said...

Perfect! I agree entirely!

steve said...

Good post. Hundreds of thousands feel exactly the same way!

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