…teach them well and let them lead the way.
These words of wisdom (ahem) from Whitney Houston seem completely at odds both with pronouncements of recent weeks, but also policies of recent years. David Cameron has employed his most Daily-Mail-baiting sound bites in describing the recent London riots as “criminality – pure and simple” and lamenting the “slow moral collapse” of a whole generation. The press seem to revel in any incident which enables them to leer over so-called feral youths, gangs of teenage thugs, and how they represent broken Britain, while films like (the excellent and terrifying) Eden Lake depict unspeakable horrors inflicted by children on ‘innocent’ adults.
I recently heard an excellent short lecture by Ed Howker in which he argues that young people in the UK do not deserve such a reputation. Indeed he argues that they deserve David Cameron’s help much more than his condemnation. Ed Howker looks like quite an angry young man in his profile pictures, and indeed he is, but he’s got a point.
Research studies from both the UK and from UNICEF, that date from before 2010’s student marches and more recent outbreaks of street violence and rioting, seem to indicate that the UK population are far more likely to regard their young people with fear, disdain and contempt than other EU countries. Apparently UK children feel unhappier than their counterparts in Spain or Sweden, as their parents seem to substitute giving them quality stuff for spending quality time as a family. In fact, these studies from The Department of The Bleeding Obvious suggest that children are actually quite simple types, and are made happier more by time to play outside with their friends or family, than by hibernating in their rooms with games consoles, laptops, phones and televisions.
Tessa Livingstone wrote in last weekend’s Sunday Telegraph on the same issue. She has been recording the progress of children born at the start of this Millenium for the epic TV series ‘Child of Our Time’, and has noted significant shifts in the aspirations and attitudes of her subjects’ parents.
The children I have been monitoring were born at the beginning of the new millennium, a time of great optimism. At that time, I asked all our parents what they wanted for their children. All of them told me that happiness was the greatest gift they could have. Over the past 10 years, I have seen our parents subtly changing the target. Our children and their parents may wish for happiness but they aim now for success, with material goods and money as their goal.
Our society has progressed (sic) so far that we now give children access to everything that adults have – instant information about everything and anything online, mobile phones, music downloads etc, but none of the responsibility. Worse, we don’t teach them responsibility, or (more pointedly) how rubbish it is to be a grown-up. My daughter seems to crave an iPad: apparently some of her friends at school have one. She expects she / we could get one, because her friends do, or because it’s advertised, but she hasn’t yet quite mastered the concept of budgets and costs. I’m not judging her for that, she’s only 9.
But the wider point is that awareness and access to so many things are now virtually universal and (almost) free. Back in my day (only one generation ago!) there were no mobile phones: I got my first only in my mid-20s. There were practically no computers in our whole university, there were only 4 tv channels, CDs cost more than they do today, and downloading was barely even a concept. Children grow up expecting they can have all these things, but reality is very different.
I agree with Ed Howker when he argues that society has given up equipping the next generation for the future and the challenges they will face. We have almost systematically ruined their prospects at the same time as removing their ability to do anything about it. Politicians treat the elderly with a reverence and deference that is no doubt deserved for their historic service to their country in terms of paying taxes. It’s politically unthinkable to cut (say) the Winter Fuel Allowance or free TV licences or bus passes for OAPs. On the other hand, the EMA, student grants, free Higher Education, housing benefits – all things that were considered ‘normal’ 20 years ago – are now apparently unaffordable. The young represent the future of this country, in terms of future parents, future skills, future taxpayers, but we now insist they take full responsibility for paying their way through every aspect of that after they turn 16.
And it’s becoming clear that they can’t afford it. Job prospects are terrible, with more than 20% of under 25s out of work. Graduates complete their studies with massive debts and little chance of earning enough to pay them back. Research by Grant Thornton presents three chilling examples that should be required reading in every household. In each of these, students who graduate in 2015 pay £9,000 tuition fees per year and receive a maintenance loan, so that when they graduate, aged 21, they have a debt of around £40,000.
- Tom becomes a Civil Servant, does well and earns £70,000 by the time he’s 34. But he doesn’t fully repay his student debts until he’s 50, and repays more than double the original debt due to interest payments – £98,000 in total.
- Janet (God Help Her) becomes a journalist – but you could substitute ‘teacher’ here as well. She earns £28,000 from the age of 22. She never repays her debt, because of her ‘relatively low’ income and the substantial interest payments. After 30 years it would be written off by the Government. She pays off a total of £42,000.
- Leo (bless) becomes a corporate lawyer, whose employers put him through law school. By the time he qualifies in his late 20s he earns £61,500. Even Leo takes until his late 30s to pay off the debt, and repays a total of £68,000.
These scenarios starkly suggest that only (already) very well-off students who can call on the resources of their parents, or most highly paid graduates will pay off these debts before they reach middle age, and many will never pay them off at all.
Others aren’t ‘lucky enough’ to go to university. Grade inflation means less able children are even worse off, as so many CVs now quote multiple A* grades. But the apprenticeships of old seem to have vanished. The new vogue for professional ‘internships’ are increasingly unpaid, meaning they’re practically unaffordable for people who aren’t either rich or able to live at home with Mummy & Daddy. Again, this puts all the risk and burden on the young and inexperienced to make their way. Unpaid internships effectively narrow the gene pool of people and reinforces the mental gap between the political class and the people they claim to represent. And we wonder why the kids in Tottenham and Croydon and Ealing feel disenfranchised, isolated, cut off…
We throw a celebrity / success culture at the young in countless ‘reality’ shows and magazines, then ridicule them when they try to take part. From the X-Factor to The Apprentice, we laugh at and mock young people without the real skills or experience to succeed, but who believe they can because they’ve been told they should.
I’m 42. I’m beginning to worry about my health (cholesterol, creaking hips and back) and about my pension – which despite reasonable contributions, keeps being downgraded with every annual statement. I’m lucky that my parents and in-laws are all still alive, but evidently they’re not as well as they once were, but at least they have decent pensions, and they did well in the property markets of the last 40 years.
How are my children supposed to start their own independent lives, if they dare to be ambitious enough to attend university? They’ll have massive debts that they may never pay off, they’ll struggle to save enough for a house deposit, as the average house price in the UK is now over 8 times the average income, and bank lending remains very tight. Medical science might well keep me alive a lot longer than previous generations, but my pension doesn’t look anything like as healthy as my Dad’s. Heaven help them even thinking of their own pension reserves.
If the sums remain as they are, the New Labour vision of opening up access to Higher Education looks like an insane pipe-dream. The Governing Class of 2025 will fondly recall their university education at the turn of the Millenium, but it seems that the rest will have had to knuckle down and work for a living and for skills right from the outset. There’s nothing wrong at all with that. But we should stop pretending that the model isn’t changing, and start equipping our society, employers and (most importantly) the next generations to live in that future.