And so George Osborne told the Tory Party conference of his plans to cut housing benefit for the under 25s... just think of the happy families, the bonding experiences for graduate children unable to find jobs and parents worrying about theirs. Last week I started reading an article and made it through three lines before reaching the words ‘unpaid internship’. That was when I stopped reading the article, and I hope it’s not only me who’s fed up of reading about how severely I’ve been screwed as a young person in Britain.
Six months ago I was listening to the author Anna Minton speaking about the Olympics at a café in Hackney. When the time for questions came around, a member of the crowd from the Occupy movement asked what she would actually be doing to protest the Olympics, and having just summarised the retrospectively added Olympics chapter from her book Ground Control, Minton sort of shrugged and said researching and writing was more “what she did.” I don’t want to criticise Anna Minton, she writes and researches brilliantly on the under reported subject of private control of public space. At the same time, for the broader issue of dissent… the Occupy protester had a point.
For all the high human costs, the suffering, anxiety, frustration and sense of doom, the economic thrashing being dished out to Generation Rent has created one new industry out of the need for people to write about it. This isn’t surprising, it is after all infuriatingly unfair (and therefore good media) that people should have to do high quality work, without pay, before they have any chance of landing themselves a real job that will even then probably be low paid and not very secure. We don’t expect pensions, we didn’t get half the benefits of the post-World War II welfare state, we pay the buy-to-let mortgages of those who did but hope is not lost because the Comment is Free desk needs somebody to tell them about the torturous experience of having to live at home with their parents after university. Somebody a few years younger has the opportunity to write about how the education maintenance allowance helped them and how much harder life will be without it. Someone else gets to write about how £9,000 tuition fees will scupper their plans of going to university. The Higher Education Statistics Agency reckons that 2010-11 saw an intake of some 12,500 students of media studies or journalism, helping to create a body of approximately 50,000 students in the field of mass communication and documentation. The figures suggest the supply of young journalists and their hardship stories is likely to increase even as demand shrinks. A handful will get moments of success when their experience or opinions are called upon, and based on an ability to articulate our sorry state of affairs a smaller number will make it onto the bottom rung of the journalistic ladder. Most will be left high and dry when the media markets decide that people have developed unfairness fatigue and that we need a new social injustice juggernaut.
Conspicuous in all this is that we’re a generation raised on a fetish for documenting events rather than creating them. Whether our social lives on Facebook or microthoughts on Twitter, we’re obsessed with telling people how we’re feeling rather than actually doing much about it. Too proud for protest, too private for the streets, a generation of intellects beg the media to make something notable of their grievances rather than taking to politics to redress them. There’s something of an End of History hangover in it all, the ill effects of growing up in a neoliberal zenith so empty of alternatives that people have been left incapable of envisaging change. If post World War II gave us Baby Boomers then we must be Generation Forsaken, or the Timorous Twenty-Somethings… any piece of alliteration that summarises people lamenting their problems without the chutzpah to do much about them.
At the heart of the issue is a generation who sees itself without a stake in our politics, we live in our parents’ society and under their ground rules just as we might live in their houses and under their roof. Young people have no stake in our society because in reality we’re living someone else’s society, a generation that was born into something and has at no point had to partake in reordering it. We have no Tahrir or Syntagma Square moments of our own, the best mobilisation of dissent in our own Parliament Square was the Sri Lankan Tamil community making better use of our democracy than we trouble to ourselves. As far as progress is concerned, and it’s always good to include a little hope, the most positive developments are perhaps gains made by the campaign to lower the voting age to 16. The idea seems to have made inroads into the Labour party, would increase the power of young people in society, and would help instill politics in minds whilst they are still in their formative years. It’s a step in the right direction, but the solutions to the problem need to be framed, and even forced, from outside parliament rather than from within it. Osborne’s plan for housing benefits is evidence that it’s no good waiting around for a government to sort out the mess we’ve inherited, and nor should demands be limited to a housing benefit by which government helps us pay the landlords of a society we can't afford to live in.
Of course I sympathise with the victims of these unfairnesses. From high rents to non-existent jobs I’m part of the generation, but nobody gets anywhere feeling sorry for themselves. There’s an irony that I’ll submit these words into the same market place I’m condemning, I’ll pitch it as the unfairness of no more commissions to write about unfairness, but perhaps that can help draw a line under this little cottage industry. We’ve been had… screwed… it’s now more important to start doing something about these injustices than to only go on talking about them.
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