Last week I started reading an article and made it through three lines before reaching the words ‘unpaid internship’. 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. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of valid material, the body of evidence grows on a monthly basis, recently replenished by George Osborne telling the Tory Party conference of his plans to abolish housing benefit for the under 25s. But for all the high human costs, the economic thrashing being dished out to Generation Rent has created one tiny new industry: the need for people to write about it.
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. Undergraduate enrolments in this subject area have increased by 14% since the era of ‘financial crisis’ took hold in 2007, suggesting that 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 miniscule number will make it onto the bottom rung of the journalistic ladder. This minority is perhaps epitomised by Owen Jones and Laurie Penny (it’s telling that we have one boy and one girl), and whilst they too do good work, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether they will be a political success, in which their writing facilitates positive change, or a marketing success, whereby their writing caters to the swelling ranks of angry media purchasers. Are they heralds or merely troubadours?
This question is at the heart of brand "Vibrant, new youth politics". The notion itself makes for a distinct angle, but the mass of participants in this movement, from Occupy to UK Uncut to the student protests, are at the same time varyingly dismissed or criminalised by this very same media. Of course, there must be cross-over for the brand to get its lifeblood – it’s essential that Laurie and Owen are committed activists. But look at the trends: polemical criticism from a youth perspective is now a genre, while direct action, no matter how well-informed, intentioned and behaved is being cast as ever more deviant, thereby hindering the growth its legitimacy warrants.
The ‘youth’ angle also serves to alienate us from the older generations. The focus on the age of hard done-by young people, however it may have captured the public imagination, has also served to understate our common cause with the rest of the country. And what happens when the markets develop youth unfairness fatigue and decide on a new social injustice juggernaut to publicise?
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 sort things out than to go on talking about it.
Part of a mini series. See also:
Today's Novara (Resonance FM) episode discussing, among other things, new media and the future of the British commentariat, with Laurie Penny and James Butler, hosted by Aaron Peters.
Columnism, complicity and crisis, by James Butler