We are facing a national crisis as the social contract between generations comes under increasing strain
By Georgia Gould
In politics the established rules no longer seem to apply. Whether it is a Trump rally, a Black Lives Matter protest or a Momentum meeting in London, young faces shine out from pictures, actively rejecting the political status quo. Political flash mobs sweep through an issue or behind a candidate leaving chaos in their wake. Commentators struggle to explain how politics is moving and pollsters to make accurate predictions. Mainstream leaders seem to flounder in the face of an anger they do not understand. All of a sudden the whole political establishment seems out of its depth.
Critics rail at the idealistic naivety of young voters. Everyone wants them to get in line and realise the rules of the game but this is not going to happen. Politics feels increasingly split between the “institutionalists”, those who broadly believe in, and want to protect, the institutions of representative democracy (political parties and parliamentary decision-making), and the political insurgents. This is no one group but a complex array of single issue and “pop up” protest groups and campaigners looking for different models of democratic and economic organisation. This no longer just exists outside of the political mainstream. Entrepreneurial leaders are able to take advantage of this feeling to build new electoral coalitions with real weight as we see across Europe and now the US.
Young people sit at the heart of these insurgent movements. The trust gap is a vacuum that cuts across generations. The latest Edelman trust barometer showed a 19 per cent trust gap between the wealthiest and poorest respondents (31 per cent in the US). But young voters are a key demographic driving anti-politics with significant consequences for the future. The truth is that the majority of young people in the UK (and many other parts of the world) feel actively alienated from political life and their disengagement should not be read as ambivalent apathy but an active protest. This angry, silent majority of young voters is a volatile force in any democracy.
I believe deeply in the capacity of political projects and, somewhat unusually for my generation, I have a lot of faith in political institutions. However, I think those of us involved in politics are engaging in a dangerous act of collective complacency. Too often we act like the foundations that underpin us are unbreakable. But history tells a different story. We cling to traditions and narratives that cocoon us but fail to engage others in these narratives. If we fail to take account of the inequalities raging through society, the increasingly disjointed nature of decision-making and the fact that most of a generation are opting out, then we could find our institutions are more vulnerable than we think. Institutionalists have two options: engage in the critique and start from where young people are or risk becoming obsolete. Recent upsets are not the consequence of politically engaging young voters but of disengagement. Rather than turn away and build greater walls to keep them out of politics we need to start asking how to bring them in.
This is not about one big new idea. There is not a leader riding over the hill with all the ideas and charisma to magically unleash a new coalition and engage younger generations. All of us involved in political life, from journalists through to local party members, need to take some responsibility for creating a political culture that includes young citizens. I am always surprised how often debates about youth engagement end at votes at 16 and political education. These are both important but it is not enough to educate people about a system they do not believe in. We have to make real changes to how we do politics. It is time to stop waiting for young people to “grow up” and to start taking seriously what they have to say. This is about starting a dialogue that takes us all on a journey. If we fail to do this, young people’s anger and alienation will continue to spill out in uncertain and messy change.
A lost generation?
The social contract between generations is straining. In the UK the extent to which political decision-making is skewed towards older generations is particularly marked. This is in a context where younger people are set to enjoy a lower standard of living than their parents. The precarious position of many young citizens – subject to the instabilities of globalisation and beneficiaries of none of its opportunities – is an issue that the left has to take up. Rising inequality means many young people need state support to help provide stability and opportunities but find it is not there. There are a group of young people who find themselves without access to employment progression, housing or opportunity and without a political voice to challenge this.
Rather than dealing with these issues, narratives emerge that blame, and sometimes even demonise, young people for the challenges they face. Myths abound about young people’s apathy, sense of entitlement, laziness and selfishness. At the extreme, these start to question their very humanity as they increasingly interact with the digital world. This is most marked for disadvantaged young people and a whole lexicon has emerged of stereotypes – chavs, hoodies and thugs – leading to demonisation. Instead of looking at failing careers advice and the mismatch between education and the labour market we label young people lazy and entitled.
There are a group of young people who find themselves without access to employment progression, housing or opportunity and without a political voice to challenge this.
I remember a young man in Glasgow who told me that he had tried to help an elderly woman cross the road only to find himself set upon by her walking stick. “She used language I had never heard before,” he told me. Young people talk about security guards who tail them as soon as they enter a shop, curtains that twitch when they play in the park, police turning up when they are merely talking to friends. Societies have always used younger generations as a proxy for fears about a changing world but the current situation is heightened by our increasing separateness. We have a breakdown between the generations where, outside the immediate family, we only encounter different generations in newspapers, not in real life. There is a reduction in the spaces where generations come together. Inter-generational religious communities are declining and even where young people are deeply religious they are often exploring this in a very personal way aided by the internet, rejecting traditional places of worship.
This lack of understanding is particular true of our relationship with adolescence. In Britain we have the worst of all worlds, ascribing a great deal of agency to teenagers but giving them little autonomy. The UK has a criminal age of culpability of 10 years-old, one of the lowest in Europe. We have seen the problematic discourse around teenagers making “lifestyle choices” in reaction to sexual exploitation. Take the 16 year-old who was deemed by a judge to have “groomed” her adult teacher, a man in a position of responsibility in her life into a sexual relationship. Services meant to support risk-taking teenagers end up too often feeling distant, controlling, directional and devoid of any connection to who they are as people. We know that teenage years are where young people grasp towards autonomy, and that is even more true in today’s digital age. Risk-taking, trying new things, opening up their horizons are how they learn and develop an identity. At the extreme, some young people feel that their only way to find connection, a sense of control over their destiny, financial stability and maybe a little adventure can be through gangs, abusive relationships or radical ideologies. Services that are uniform, restrict choice, and try to keep them in a tight box will only alienate and push them towards rebellion. This is a time of great opportunity but also vulnerability. Young people can be supported to experiment safely, to test their boundaries with the support of a caring adult, to learn from their mistakes. They want support that is empowering, relational and gives them space to make their own choices. While we invest a lot of energy and support in early years, adolescence is largely ignored and youth services, which should be the mainstay of this support, are being decimated around the country.
I first became really worried about Britain’s relationship with young people in 2010. I had just been elected as a councillor in the London borough of Camden. I felt the challenges faced by the young people I was working with were not being heard and, just as importantly, I felt that their contributions were being wasted. The narrative I was hearing in politics and the media around apathy and deviance bore no relation to the creative melting pot of energy, ideas, optimism, passion and laughter – but also deep anger – I was hearing on a daily basis. The fact that a large part of our population was actively rejecting politics and traditional institutions seemed like one of the biggest challenges of our times yet it felt like it never made it onto the political agenda. I felt increasingly like our relationship with younger generations had become a national crisis but their voices were so marginalised there was no impetus to change.
I found a generation facing massive challenges but, contrary to many media narratives, I did not find a lost generation
Over the last couple of years I have travelled round the country interviewing young people to try and understand what was happening and how to change it. I focused on younger Millennials (those aged between 15 and 25) visiting schools, young offenders, children in care, youth clubs, campuses, workplaces and leading focus groups from Brighton to Glasgow.
I found a generation facing massive challenges but, contrary to many media narratives, I did not find a lost generation. Every trip unearthed a groundswell of energy, optimism and creative ideas. This is the most educated, diverse generation we have ever had, in tune with new technologies, and experienced in rapid change. In today’s fast-changing world they have a legitimate and powerful expertise by their experience at the forefront of this. Young people are reinventing community organisation, political activism and the world of work. They are deeply entrepreneurial and optimistic about their futures despite the many difficulties they face. However, we are not doing enough as a society to face these challenges or realise those aspirations. And I am increasingly seeing that optimism start to falter especially for disadvantaged, younger teenagers.
What I found challenged every set idea I had about politics. However, I never find a simple “youth view”. Youth culture is more fragmented than ever before as complex and niche identities flourish in an internet age. There are nonetheless shared generational experiences and common trends in the challenges young people face and the way they are responding.
There are three trends which I want to focus on: loss of faith in political institutions, the importance the young place on individuality and rising inequality.
Loss of faith in politics
Young people have increasing lost faith in political institutions to meet the challenges they face. Declining voter turnout and low levels of trust in politicians is by no means unique to young voters. However, the extent of disengagement stands out in comparison to older voters, previous generations and many other countries. There is a pernicious cycle where young people are less likely to vote or politically engage meaning politicians are less likely to focus on issues important to them.
In 1964, 76.4 per cent of those aged under 25 are reported to have voted, the same number as for those aged over 64 year-olds. In 2015, it was estimated at 43 per cent compared to 78 per cent over 65. This is when the demographics already favour older voters so it is not hard to see why decision-making is skewed in their favour.
Young people’s disengagement from politics is best understood as a protest at the outcomes of political decision-making and the way politics is conducted. According to the 2011 British Social Attitudes survey, only 15 per cent of young people believed that the government generally treats young people fairly. And they can be forgiven for their cynicism as the young increasingly lose out in political decision-making. Analysis by the IPPR revealed that in the 2010 spending review those aged 16- to 24-years-old faced cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared to just 10 per cent for those aged 55 to74. Overall, research from the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion shows that the share of national income being spent on pensioner benefits remained the same in 2014-15 as it had been in 2009-10 while children and young people have seen a litany of cuts. It is disadvantaged young people who are least likely to take part and most likely to lose out from policies such as the end of the educational maintenance allowance and housing benefits cuts for under 21-year-olds.
Young people from more affluent backgrounds and students tend to dominate the political discourse. Research by the Office of National Statistics showed that graduates are three times more likely to engage in civic life. But, as the majority disengage, a small group are taking more political action, a group described by one academic as “super activists” and by another as “totally different social animals”. Helped by social media their voices take on more power in a vacuum. Their activism should be applauded but it cannot be used to mask the fact that large numbers of young citizens are turning even further away from mainstream political institutions.
But, as the majority disengage, a small group are taking more political action, a group described by one academic as “super activists” and by another as “totally different social animals”.
The young people I spoke to from all backgrounds were deeply political. Many express their sense of anger and desire for change through music, spoken word poetry and other acts of personal expression. Their political engagement is deeply personal, it can be about how they shop, work or express themselves. It coalesces in flashes of shared protest or action but it struggles to find long-term institutional power. This is hard for traditional political processes to engage with or even to recognise; so much of this goes unnoticed and fails to create structural change. For many young people “politics” is reduced to the brief snippets of debate they catch as they try to avoid it altogether, not the action they take in their day-to-day life.
For many young people, especially those furthest away from power, this distrust has hardened and deepened into full-blown conspiracy narratives. Their consumption of news is marked by high levels of cynicism and distrust both of mainstream news, politicians and other official sources. This is particularly marked for those who feel they only see their religion, race or class negatively represented. Young people actively seek the truth outside of the mainstream and can come up with dubious sources positing alternative explanations. This saps energy and deepens alienation. There is little point in campaigning for change if the system is set up against you. A healthy scepticism and questioning of power is essential for democracy, but when it becomes ingrained and all encompassing it destroys it.
If we do not heal the rift that has opened up we will miss the energy, creativity and contribution of a large part of our society. We will fail to address the real concerns they face in their lives and we will put the future of our democratic institutions in jeopardy. According to Hansard’s 2014 audit of political engagement only half of 18- to 24-year-olds believe parliamentary institutions are essential for democracy (compared to 73 per cent of those aged over 75). We cannot take it as a given that people will put up with feeling excluded in the long term.
However, we can learn some lessons from where young people have engaged politically. The Scottish referendum was a powerful example with almost 70 per cent youth turnout. Young people often find politics through issues and this was a political issue that captured their imaginations. Following the referendum teenagers told me it was the first time they saw politics as “for them” with politicians coming into schools and directly engaging with their worldview. Some talked in terms of a political awakening, a seismic shift in how they thought about their identity and power.
Many young people supported Jeremy Corbyn because he offered something different: a more radical, open and authentic kind of politics. Young people are frustrated with a narrow, scripted political debate that seems to ignore them and he offered a challenge to this. This is a generation bought up with reality television. They like their celebrities real and raw. The contrast with the one-dimensional and scripted blandness of politicians frozen in the spotlight of an unforgiving media compounds the sense of inauthenticity.
However, it is a mistake to infer that all young people are on the left of politics. The views of the young are varied and there are not big majorities in favour of redistribution or welfare and many think in terms of rewarding individual effort.
The importance of individuality
The second trend underpinning many of the changes we see is the increasingly individualised nature of many young people’s engagement with politics and identity.
I have lost count of the number of times a young person has said to me “I am not my class, my race, religion. I am just me.” The young people I spoke to were fiercely protective of their right to express themselves and maintain differences. A label was a box or a trap, opening up stereotypes and tropes. Identity was a continually evolving project determined by them. It was something to build and construct not handed down or defined by others. The internet gave them a space to experiment and construct an identity, engage with niche communities and curate their own personal stories.
This is positive in many ways. As a generation, Generation Y (those aged between 20 and 35), tend to be more accepting of difference than older generations. On average they are more liberal about choices that others make and more willing to accept difference although this is by no means universal. They are also more driven by a sense of personal responsibility and impact. I was told time and time again: “I am the change I want to see in the world.” They are more likely to want to start their own business than any generation before them. In their work life they are attracted by autonomy and purpose. The young people I met from all backgrounds are hugely aspirational for themselves. They have traditional aspirations (95 per cent want to own their own home) and many also have big dreams of travel, personal growth, success and making a personal impact.
I have lost count of the number of times a young person has said to me “I am not my class, my race, religion. I am just me.”
This influenced their political views. On almost any question, the young people I spoke to were quick to stress their own agency above societal forces. Sixty-once per cent of teenagers surveyed in 2013 by Britain Thinks believe that getting on in life is more about hard work, compared to only 31 per cent who believe it is more about luck. They are far away from class-based politics, from organised religion and mass membership trade unions. Talking to young people today, these concepts are all hazy, like digging through someone else’s memories.
This is a real challenge to the Labour party formed out of collective class identity and solidarity. I remember one group in the Welsh Valleys bringing this home to me. It was a group of young people in the early twenties, either unemployed or working for low pay, in industries they did not want to be in. They all had a vision of where they want their life to go, the businesses they wanted to start or the courses they wanted to do. I asked them if they would consider organising together with people in the same position and one young man summed up the feeling of the group: “What happens if everyone turn up, we’re all together and there is only one job available, everyone’s against each other again.” They see themselves in a race for limited opportunities. They talked about trade unions as distant, abstract bodies of their grandparents not their present day reality. Some had never even heard of them. In one generation, their communities have moved from the power of the collective to the dislocation of competition.
Where there was scarcity, this sense of everyone for themselves, “a dog-eat-dog world” came up repeatedly. In many groups the gap between aspirations and reality led to blame and anger. A set of groups in Bradford brought this to life. The first group contained the children of comfortable middle-class parents, generally graduates but they found themselves in their mid-twenties saddled with debt and in low-paid retail jobs which had no connection to their degrees. They felt they could only find opportunities by leaving Bradford but were trapped by housing costs. As a result, they spoke with deep anger and resentment about their taxes going to those they perceived as scroungers and layabouts. A group of white, unemployed young people were no more positive about the welfare state. They saw everything through the lens of immigration. They believed support was going to the wrong people. The Asian young people I spoke to were focused on recent immigration from Poles. It was a chain of “them and us”, everyone looking after themselves in the context of someone less deserving. It is no surprise, therefore, that this is a generation that are least likely to be proud of the welfare state.
When there is a lack of resources, individualism can become competitive, divisive and unfeeling. Ultimately, many young people turn on themselves. If they believe outcomes are based on individual effort, then, when things go wrong, there is no one else to blame. For many young people things are going badly wrong: applying for hundreds of jobs and hearing nothing back, slipping further away from their aspirations. When I asked a group of unemployed young people what class they felt they were, they answered: “People think we’re scum,”; “we’re just above smack heads, just below working class.” Research by the Prince’s Trust in 2014 found that 40 per cent of unemployed young people report problems of self-loathing, insomnia, self-harm and panic attacks, while one in three long-term unemployed young people said that they have felt suicidal. In a culture where individual responsibility is not moderated by a strong sense of collective responsibility, just as success is a mark of your individual talent, failure means there is something wrong with you.
It is no surprise, therefore, that this is a generation that are least likely to be proud of the welfare state.
An individualistic society is not something that we should accept wholeheartedly, but we have to understand and respect where young people are coming from. Partly this is the political context they grew up in. This generation never heard mainstream politicians advocate redistribution or champion the welfare state. Labour did a lot to redistribute but it did not shout about it. And, in part, this is why they do not see the state as there to give them a helping hand. We have to address head on the pressures, loneliness that rampant individualism causes for them.
Determining the nature of this individualism is a societal project not a youth one. The battle for this generation is whether this amounts to competitive individualism, or if we can find a way to channel that energy towards creating the conditions where more stand to succeed. How we respond to inequality, stalling social mobility, low pay and youth unemployment is key to determining which wins out. Unfortunately we are moving in the wrong direction.
Declining social mobility
The question of the nature of the individualism that wins out is inexorably linked to the third major trend which is increasing levels of inequality and stagnant social mobility. The strongest conclusion I took away from researching my book was the vast gap between the experiences of young people based on their background. While young people may not identify with class differences and labels, these are increasingly holding sway in determining their outcomes. As those facing disadvantage move away from collective identity they lose the networks and political power this offers. They not only have fewer educational and career opportunities but they are also less likely to feel a sense of trust, community and political efficacy.
When we talk about the intergenerational distribution of wealth, we have to recognise that, according to research by John Hills, 10 per cent of 55- to 64-year-olds have assets worth over £1.46m, while one-tenth have less than £29,000. This disparity has huge significance for the opportunities of their children and grandchildren. As the state is no longer able to effectively redistribute across generations, it is left to families to get along the best they can and some can get along a lot better than others.
It matters more than ever what kind of family you are born into. Not just how much money they have, but where they live, the premium they put upon education and the stability the family gives you when dealing with an unstable world. As inequality grows, for some the world genuinely is their oyster. For others, however, the world restricts itself to the couple of streets in which they grew up.
At the same time that it liberates and empowers, technology disrupts and polarises. Technological progress hollows out the labour market with more jobs at the top (with tightening access for young people from professional families) and less in the middle and more poorly paid options. Some young people are growing up in communities that have been left behind by technological change and where unemployment is rife and opportunities limited.
We have seen social mobility stagnate at best and fall back at worst. Research compiled by the Sutton Trust shows that by the age of 14-15 children of graduates are around four times more likely to be in the top half of test scores compared to everyone else.
Youth desire for entrepreneurialism is widespread and the internet promises much. Seventeen-year-old Jamal Edwards was able to create a business empire from the bedroom of his west London estate. However, the reality is that Jamal remains the exception. There is a big gap between those who want to start their own businesses and those who actually do. Populus research for the 2014 RBS Enterprise tracker showed that 49 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds want to start their own business but only seven per cent have actually done so. Becoming an entrepreneur requires capital, space and living with little pay for long periods. Many of the jobs created by the STEM economy are highly skilled. Companies are recruiting from top universities and the reality is this is, in large parts, a world dominated by male graduates. The new economy is being built by the same people who created the old one.
On the left, we still look at these issues through the lens of past identities. The young people we seek to represent may face some of the same challenges as in the past but their identities, expectations and aspirations are different. Our task now is about understanding, and giving voice to, the challenges they face in terms which they recognise. We have to understand how they see inequality and what it means in their daily lives. This includes issues of stability, debt and housing but also issues such as privacy, self-expression and entrepreneurialism.
If any political party is going to effectively represent and engage younger voters, they have to engage with the issues they face:
Many young people’s lives are characterised by high levels of instability. Housing is at the heart of this as the young bear the brunt of the UK’s housing problems. Rising house prices mean that, for many young adults, home ownership is an impossible dream. Young people live for many years in the private rented sector characterised by unstable tenancies, high prices and lack of protection. We most often see this housing crisis presented in the media through the lens of home ownership. Less attention is paid to youth homelessness. The safety net of secure council housing is increasingly unavailable to young adults. Not everyone has the luxury of staying in their parents’ home as they navigate education, internships, apprenticeships or early employment.
Another major contributor to this sense of instability is low pay and debt. As many young people struggle to meet the basic costs of living, debt becomes a part of life. Low pay and a lack of career progression for this generation is looking to be a chronic and long-term issue. We have a systemic problem of school-to-work transitions and the ongoing disjointed nature of non-university pathways. The issue of instability is not exclusive to young people but the extent and longevity this generation face compared to previous generations is a major political change.
Stability does not necessarily look the same for younger generations as older. Many young people appreciate flexibility in their work so they can pursue a portfolio career.
We know that the labour market is going to dramatically change over the lifetime of current teenagers. Automisation is going to be highly disruptive. There is an increase in high-skilled jobs but a lack of concurrent training opportunities. The care and service industry is growing but is not yet given the prestige and pay to be an attractive long-term option.
Stability does not necessarily look the same for younger generations as older. Many young people appreciate flexibility in their work so they can pursue a portfolio career. I met young people who were on fixed zero-hour contracts where they did not know if they were getting work the next day. At the same time, many young people I met were working flexibly as they pursued a social enterprise, music career or writing. The challenge for policymakers is protecting young people from employment practices that leave them exploited while acknowledging that not everyone wants to be tied down to a fixed schedule.
Fostering a sense of belonging
The young are increasingly alienated from a sense of community. While there is a lot of focus on the loneliness of the elderly, we see similar levels of social isolation among the young. A dislocated housing market, long working hours and financial instability all contribute to this. The housing crisis can disperse young people far away from their social and family networks. Many young people are experiencing high levels of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. As many as one in 10 teenagers self harm.
At the same time a societal focus on individual achievement in a context where there are significant barriers to progression is toxic for self worth. The internet offers a paradox where young people feel constantly connected but can struggle to find meaningful relationships. There are powerful examples of where online communities can develop depth and meaning however the internet can be distorting and dehumanising, whether it is the “yes/ no” judgements of the dating app Tinder, the venom of anonymous commentators or the carefully curated projection of perfection through Instagram. Media and advertising imagery is pervasive, creating unrealistic expectations especially around appearance. Gaming and online porn addictions are a growing phenomenon. When porn becomes the lens through which young men especially conceive of sex, they then can struggle with real-life intimacy. Online bullying can follow them into their bedrooms.
We do not just see disengagement from political institutions, we see the same patterns in civil society organisations. As I travelled around, I also met many older adults frustrated that young people did not turn up to local community forums and concluding that they just did not care. Addressing loneliness in young adults and the elderly requires a new dialogue between generations.
Loneliness and social isolation does not affect all young people equally. Young people from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to have wider social networks, a strong sense of belonging, social capital and trust. This manifests itself in engagement with the sharing economy where they are both more likely to be trusted and trusting. Trust itself has become an equality issue.
I spoke to many young people who felt alienated from any sense of community. They live in a world characterised by fear, risk, violence and distrust where they are left feeling hyper-vigilant and defensive. Experiences that most people would find highly disturbing are met with barely a raised eyebrow. As one young man put it to me about a stabbing he had recently witnessed: “People were shocked but for me that is normal, that is just life.’ Young people who have experienced violence and abuse as children can, in some cases, struggle to relate in any other way than victim or perpetrator of violence. For some, a close proximity to violence and fear pushes them to look for protection and brotherhood in gangs. As one young man put it: “Gang life was love for me, shedding blood for my brother was how I expressed my love and loyalty.” These ties can be hard to escape. Young men and women are groomed into joining the drug trade, sexual exploitation and religious extremism, exploited into participating in networks which offer false protection. Alienation sits at the heart of so many risks teenagers engage in.
The internet offers young people huge opportunities and this is very much embedded into their worldview. However, we increasingly have generations who are bought up online, sharing huge amounts of personal data in exchange for ease and personalisation. Every teenage indiscretion or ill-thought-out photo is captured on a social media giant’s server.
The gaze of the internet can wreak havoc through someone’s life, quickly forgotten in the media but hard to erase for the individual. People’s mistakes, an ex’s revenge, or a silly comment can go viral impeding future job prospects and opportunities. This impacts everyone but at least for adults, the tools existed when they had a good understanding of the consequences.
Again, this is an inequality issue with some young people supported by anxious parents aware of the risks and others who do not have access to the knowledge or skills to support their children. We have only just begun to come to terms with this in a policy or cultural sense.
I believe there is a moral imperative to respond to the concerns of younger generations. I also think this is a huge opportunity for Labour to build a new, dynamic electoral coalition.
In searching for the answers we are not starting from scratch. Young people are not passively waiting for policymakers to respond. This is an entrepreneurial generation developing their own solutions and we have a lot to learn from young leaders operating outside of formal politics. As we explore these questions there are some important principles that can act as a guide.
The first is a distributional one. We have to change the distribution of resources in our society to meet the needs of younger citizens and tackle the stark inequalities between them. If we are serious about increasing productivity, growing our economy and supporting social mobility then it is essential that a greater share of the national income is spent on young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is not about inter-generational warfare. A disjointed politics impacts everyone as we have seen older voters cashing in their pensions to help younger relatives out. Families can push themselves into chaos and breakdown as they put up with vastly overcrowded accommodation to keep their children close to opportunity or put themselves into debt to support their children’s education. The task of the Labour party is to speak about the problems facing young people as an issue that hurts us all. Backing young Britain is about supporting growth and unlocking our human capital.
However, this redistribution does not have to look exactly the same as it did in the past. In order to win young people’s support we have to be respectful of their desire for autonomy, individuality and flexibility. We need to chime with their ambitions. A redistributive platform for the future might include a lifetime inheritance tax funding a capital endowment for every young person. Some young people will want to choose the flexibility of self employment but to allow all young people to embrace a dynamic, flexible world of work they need a foundation of stable housing and capital.
Addressing the stability challenge requires an enabling state. On housing, a national building programme, regulation of the private rented sector and new forms of intermediate housing for young people. Trade unions and new worker initiatives need to find a way to represent the interest of the self-employed and the “sharing economy” workers, without boxing them in to a fixed idea of employment. They have an opportunity to help address the need for life-long learning and network building.
The young want public services that are more relational and supportive individuals who can guide them through transitions. We need to redesign our services so they offer joined-up support from cradle to career. Solving the school-to-work transition requires local powers and accountability for youth training, progression and employment with business, further education and schools coming together to create a coherent system. The young should not be walking into job centres but youth opportunity centres with relational career advice for all, access to training and signposting to support services.
The second principle is participation. Representative politics can seem very passive to a generation used to direct action. Youth movements that are successful are open and democratic in structure, and share power. Take Suli Breaks, a young spoken word poet whose YouTube video on the purpose of education went viral and sparked a global conversation. He describes his work as an iterative process. He sends out a spark in the form of a video and his followers create their own content which raises new questions for him to respond to. Suli and many of the other young people I met with followers on YouTube demonstrate a different model of leadership based not on a formal position but on the community you are able to create. Young people are used to co-creating content, putting their own spin on a video, improving a piece of code; they want the same sense of collaborative endeavour from their policy-making.
There needs to be a participation revolution not just in our communities but across our workplaces.
Those of us involved in politics need to explore how we open up structures and allow elements of direct democratic involvement. This is threefold: a devolution agenda which sees power held at the lowest possible level; public sector reform that respects professionals to develop solutions alongside users; and democratic processes such as civic jury duty and participatory budget-making incorporated into decision-making.
There needs to be a participation revolution not just in our communities but across our workplaces. Mutual ownership, co-operative principles and employee involvement in governance can help ensure capitalism works for everyone. The public sector should provide models of structural reform that empowers front-line professionals rather than centralised command and control. Young people can reclaim politics. However, this cannot be done without also mobilising and building grassroots movements based on relationships, otherwise the voices of the activists drown out the quieter majority.
The third and major task of Labour today is to create solidarity while respecting individuality. It is not enough to call on past identities; solidarity in the modern world has to be an active, live endeavour. The most successful youth movements invest in relationships, seeing them as the thread that holds together often hugely diverse groups. Much more thought has to be put into the art of relationship-building, fostering dialogue and constructive debate. There is a desperate need for new institutions that create bridges across class, race and generations. So many of the problems around social isolation and alienation come from groups who see each other from afar through the lens of distorted stereotypes. We cannot assume that our supporters will come together on their own, we have to become community organisers and community builders. Shared local narratives can bridge diverse communities. We need safe spaces for open dialogue that allow for vulnerability, humanity and nuance. In this we have a lot to learn from MC Angel who runs Lyrically Challenged, a spoken word event which builds a community out of self-expression. She describes how people come to her events and “bear their heart and soul on a microphone”. “People talk about sexual abuse and stuff like that on the mic” and everyone gets a hug afterwards. “To me,” she says, “that’s a revolution and that’s freedom.”
There are two paths institutionalists can take. The first is to ignore the anger and hold fast to the status quo, a path the Conservatives are firmly committed to, the second is to begin a reforming journey. Labour has no choice but to be reformers. It is our voters that are disenfranchised and disenchanted and our obligation is to listen to their concerns. The Labour party has always been at its best when we engage outside of the borders of the party and act as a bridge between our supporters and political institutions. The party can take up young people’s cause and ask the difficult questions for their generation. In doing so, we will renew not just the Labour party but also our broader institutions.
The Labour party faces huge challenges in responding: a fractured coalition of voters, an increasingly divisive internal debate and a growing gap between the views of our members and the majority of voters. Too much of the current debate on the left is framed around the past, whether it is past political figures or policy solutions. I do not think a set of ideas from the handbook of the past is ever going to offer us electoral success. A progressive and radical perspective will rightly look very different in 2017 to 1997 or 1979.
Many young people, including large numbers of my friends who had never before engaged in politics, joined Labour to vote for Jeremy Corbyn because they wanted a debate, some new ideas and a different kind of politics. They are not hardline anything. I have also come into contact with new members who would rather have intellectual purity than electability, that shout shame at those of us in local government trying to take decisions in difficult circumstances, who deny compromise and waste energy looking for the enemy within. There are people from all sides of the debate who use opinions as badges to put people into categories. I recently went to a housing rally about the pernicious housing and planning bill and was frustrated by a group of protestors focusing their ire on Labour councillors as “blue Tories” rather than uniting with us to make their case. This kind of politics lets down exactly the people we seek to represent but we cannot get dragged into being the “them” to someone else’s “us”. There is an important role in working with new young members who have a positive agenda and at the same time reaching out beyond the boundaries of our party and building a broad, inclusive movement. It crucially means including the young people furthest away from politics and learning from MC Angel and Suli who are creating different kinds of movements.
The questions that many Labour members are asking about inequality are absolute the right ones and the party should be leading this debate. Ed Miliband was right to ask questions around responsible capitalism and in many business circles there is a far more radical and practical debate going on about social investment, circular supply chains and employee ownership than we hear within the Labour party. But how to address these challenges needs to be a genuinely open question, and we need to include business in that debate.
Far from holding fringe views the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds put themselves in the political centre.
It is harder to be a progressive than it is to sit on the extreme of the left or right. There are no unassailable truths that offer comfort and security; it is a creed that is based on continual questioning and renewal. Progressives cannot rely on fear, we have to instil hope and thread together a vision of the future that people can believe in. In this country we respond to both – the politics of division and blame will always have an audience if that is all that is on offer. But we can throw off that cynicism and come together. It is a harder path but it is the only one that ever produces real, lasting change.
In doing so we have a powerful force in young voters. Far from holding fringe views the majority of 18- to 24-year-olds put themselves in the political centre. The legacy of Labour’s three terms in government has been powerful. It forced a massive realignment on social issues: we are more a more open, tolerant and progressive country. We see it in the increased number of graduates, declining youth crime, and in a more liberal and entrepreneurial generation. The Labour party can be a place where contradictions are confronted head on, and orthodoxies and dogmas are challenged. It can be a radical and dynamic political space. And, most importantly, it is a space that the majority of young voters occupy. The public is with us and when that is the case there is always the hope of renewal.
Georgia Gould is a Labour Councillor for Kentish Town in Camden and Cabinet member for Young People and Economic Growth