‘Young people are complacent and in for a shock’ – what I really said to the Times

I was asked by The Times to give my views on recent research by YouGov into young people’s political views and participation. Inevitably my comment was distilled into a short paragraph. Here is the substance of it, with a little spice thrown in for dramatic value.

Firstly, when we read new statistics about young people we often tend to vilify their opinions and behaviours. We need to avoid that: history teaches us that every generation defames its young – so let’s not stigmatise another batch. Young people are freedom-seeking wannabe-heroes but only have their context to work against. Their views are culturally programmed by the adult environment and reflect inherited values with a fresh tinge of hedonism thrown in…

The current generation of 18 to 30-year-olds have only lived through two changes of government. Long governments change the whole perception of society in the direction of their underlying tenets. Under Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher before him the country’s collective norms have been reset.

The new political paradigms have been geared towards greater individualism. This is what the current generation has learned. Unlike the over 50s who grew up with left / right pendulum swings in a political climate of the industrial era today’s politics are something of a side-show. So young people’s answers in polls are hazy shadows of half-baked ideas and vague parental opinion. Witness in this latest poll: 38% of 16 years olds telling us they’ve voted in a national or local election… which of course they can’t have done.

So why did I suggest that they are complacent and in for a shock?

Returning to the historical thread, when Margaret Thatcher took over government she had to dismantle the nationalised industries in the name of small government conservatism. Ironically that created a kind of totalitarian state paving the way for the Big Government politics of Tony Blair.

Blair acquiesced to perpetuating the market economy by scrapping Labour’s original Clause 4 in the belief that his persuasiveness and charisma could convince big businesses that they should be ethical bodies. This left the consumer driven markets in place – and they entrenched individualism by default. It allowed him to begin a new kind of centre-left politics based not on solidarity but on benevolence. Run by those who care about, but aren’t, the masses. This cast government in the psychological role of the parent, offering a welfare safety-net as it supported its fledglings to make their way own the world.

With a government that looks after its struggling people, and parents that tend to their fulfilment at every turn today’s young grew up feeling supported. They don’t know any other world. Accordingly many twenty-somethings expected life to look after them. Those who look on see them as ‘entitled’. A phrase ironically used with perjorative undertones by the truly entitiled.

In an era of increasing prosperity, with parents who nurtured them in comfort – this generation were led to believe that the growing knowledge and finance economy would look after the knowledgeable and numerate… So many deferred gratification, stuck in with the education system believing that it was part of the bigger system that would reward their fidelity.

But it didn’t – they’re back with mum and dad or in bed sits, looking to an uncertain future despite their work ethic. They watched the financial bubble burst not realising that they were living inside its protective shield.

And they’re now struggling without much insight into how politics works, or how it could change anything in a world that has globalised along with its market-driven economy. The old powers that shaped left/right politics are gone and new politics is dully pragmatic and puerile… playing out seemingly pedantic discourses through sound-bite media that makes it sound inane and makes politicians look dumb and powerless.

The number of young people drawn to politics decreases and those that have come to it do so because they enjoy the stimulus and challenge, not so much that they watch palpable injustice on a daily basis and feel that they should rise up in solidarity and challenge it.

This is the first generation that will end up poorer than their parents and they won’t like it. The prosperity era is over and will become a fading dream when global warming imperils our market providers, like the Bangladeshis who make our cheap clothes. The rise of the Eastern economic powers will eventually bite back and we will no longer be able to rely on our financial corporates to prop up the economy. New battle-lines between individualists and communitarians will clarify. But the common-minded will have few heroes in the white majority.

What’s more likely is that fabulous new civil rights leaders  will emerge from minority communities… ones that will relate the communitarian elements of Islam and Christianity more convincingly. They may help convince many that immigration has not been a disaster. Rather, it was the failure of the nation to imagine itself as ‘a people’ that undermined our productivity. We have all been shoddy street-looters in the race for a flat screen life.

The wealthy will continue to run the country. They will do it because the aspirations of the lower middle classes to have any kind of self-determination have been surpassed by the petty satiation that comes with the comforts of life. (Look at me, I’ve got my own car, I’ve got my own reclining chair, I’ve got my own flat screen in every room… Mum and Dad dreamed of this… no need to ask for anything more. Enjoy it!) But the wealthier have had all that, and their fulfilment comes from running the show. Their children will develop discipline, intelligence, determination and resilience to go with the assumption of power. There will be no contenders to match them.

And, maybe a point of hope, could we realise before it’s too late that we should have taught people how life really works? They may recognise the role of citizenship education is in nurturing the political mind rather than seeing its purpose as correcting the badly behaved pupils, or raising new leaders from the best.

Because while the current generation have been served up a diet of individualism and bland politics, something has atrophied. We can no longer look in the mirror, collectively, and say, ‘it’s good to be me’ because I’m a contender in building a better world. Rather, we look at our reflection with slight bemusement, asking, ‘who is that?’.

It is, of course, lost Britannia waiting to see itself afresh.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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