Life is bleak for the 'lost generation'

A new generation of British graduates are now living back at home, unemployed, and losing any hope of having a 'proper job'. It's not easy.

Nicholas Barrett
19 February 2014


Unemployment might be on the decline in Britain, but for recent graduates the outlook appears decidedly bleak. Finding a job that validates years of higher education is a difficult thing to do without the holy grail of experience. Since the economic crash, youth unemployment has dramatically increased, along with the price of rent, electricity, travel and heating. As a result a new generation of British graduates are growing up slowly, resigned to searching for low paid work from the bedrooms they grew up in. Meanwhile, thousands of young and educated economic refugees are abandoning the bailed out Mediterranean nations for the windowless shop floors of Northern Europe. Largely cut off from the aspiration, consumerism and self-determination enjoyed by their parents, the countless cohorts of skilled and educated young adults may have to redefine the meaning of freedom in the twenty-first century.

One does not simply walk into the Peckham branch of Jobcentre Plus. If you try to enter you will be stopped by a pair of private security guards who will demand to know your business. There are at least two henchmen deployed to every room, hinting at the possibility of sudden drama, that somebody might lose their last lifeline at any moment and see no reason to remain civil. The first meeting is cold and sterile and I am referred to as ‘a customer’. There are no ‘good mornings’, no eye contact and no help whatsoever. The welfare state is being starved by its reluctant foster parents and those who need it are regarded as parasites and ‘nudged’ back towards to street. What remains is a grey cloud of intrusive bureaucratic process; all watched over by machines of loathing grace in G4S uniforms.

The Jobcentre is four miles from home. For some unknown reason I have been summoned to Peckham High Street, even though my bus crawls past the Forest Hill branch, a few minutes from my front door, en route to SE15. After my appointment I decide to walk back to Sydenham. Upon reflection, walking home is probably, subconsciously, a misplaced brand of twenty-first century penance for the lack of achieving a professional identity. But on Barry Road I crumble for no single specific reason. The future falls away in front of me and my head feels as if it is inside a pressure cooker, gravity is at twice its normal strength and I silently cry all the way back to Sydenham. When you are sad the future is a scary place but when you are depressed the future simply does not exist. It is an impossible place and the present is youthless, useless and quite embarrassing too. Simple trivial ambitions become ridiculous and distant. Independence is another planet and even the notion of ever driving a car, for instance, is farcical. That classic symbol of freedom is buried beyond the costs of lessons, tests, taxes, fuel, MOTs and an actual vehicle. When will any of those payments take priority over rent, heating and power? The idea of sitting behind a steering wheel at anytime in the near future is, at least for the time being, absurd.

For a moment let’s consider Malthusian thinking, the idea that populations increasing faster then the supply of subsistence might one day lead to famine, in an economic context. If the supply of skilled graduates increases faster then the entry-level job market it will inevitably lead to saturation and growing youth unemployment. This is especially true in arts and communication where an economic crisis has hit at the precise moment when the Internet is undermining the very idea of paying for almost any kind of intellectual property. In journalism, my own desired field, the sale of newspapers is falling though the floor and the licence fee has been frozen. As in any industry we are seeing a tumble down effect too. Thousands of middle aged, experienced professionals have been made redundant and they are all better suited for what would have previously been considered as entry-level positions than the class of 2013. As a result my generation live in servitude, we will work long hours on unpaid internships and thank anybody kind enough to exploit our situation while frantically begging others to do the same. Newspapers will survive off the back of a rolling contingent of unpaid interns while simultaneously spending thousands of pounds on market research to investigate why young people won’t spend money (they don’t have) on print journalism. I have been writing for four years and have never sold a sentence but was recently offered “a thank you on twitter” in lieu of payment for an article. Meanwhile applications are sent out on a daily basis, the potential employer will almost never bother to send back a note of rejection and the longer this goes on, the more alienated and despondent the jobseeker becomes. For many university-educated adults (we must remind ourselves that we are actually adults) the body is worth more than the mind and clinical drug trials have become a realistic stream of income while waiting for meaningful work.

Why does this matter? Apart from the worrying implications of a world where only the middle class can afford to become journalists, the managed decline of a generation’s ambition could have a few rather ominous social implications for our future. There are now well over three million Britons, aged between 20 and 34 living with their parents and in America around 45% of university graduates are back living at home and for millions of adults of all ages, rent now accounts for more than half of personal income. In societies built on aspiration, the barriers between ambition and success become defining cultural features and western society has been surfing on an economic and philosophical wave of personal aspiration for over half a century.

At the start of the cold war, when the west was searching for stability and an antidote to communism, which at the time seemed to be taking over half the planet, the answer become known as ‘negative liberty’, coined by Isaiah Berlin in 1958. To put it simply negative liberty was ‘the ability to act without external restraint’ while ‘positive liberty’ referred to the slightly less tangible notion of self fulfilment, to what extent are we able to realise our goals free of internal restraint. Today, to describe negative liberty as such sounds utterly anodyne, but that’s only because it became the predominant ideology of our age, the principal and often only conception of “freedom”.

As an idea, negative liberty is remarkably simple. Freedom was to be viewed in an individual context and its only limit was the encroachment upon the freedom of other free individuals. The old brand of revolutionary freedom was dangerous and unpredictable and would always lead to tyranny, totalitarianism and torment. That was Stalinism and we would be different. Instead of trying to change the world, our politicians would simply exist to enable us, the individuals, to seize our personal ambitions; consumerism exploded. It was a lonely and vapid philosophy, but the appeal of negative liberty was its apparent transcendence of all other ideology, and it also contributed to an age of progress and prosperity the like of which humanity had never before seen. The post-war baby-boomer generation was blessed with expanding economies, democratic freedom and unprecedented social and economic equality. Millions of middle class young men could maintain a family, a home and a car on a single working income. This prosperity was never universal, but the people who worked hard to gain a degree couldn’t be blamed for their faith and optimism. For most of the American and European middle class, those days are now long gone. Education and full time employment can no longer guarantee access to a high standard of living, or even a preferable field of work. In Britain, we have recently been told to expect the price of heating to increase faster than our wages for the next 17 years as the average price for a house in London fast approaches half a million pounds.

In 1933, George Orwell published his first book, Down and out in Paris and London. It is a memoir about his life at the bottom of society in two of Europe’s greatest cites, as the hand of history taps gently on the window. In Paris, Orwell lived as a plongeur, a Parisian dishwasher. He was severely overworked and predictably underpaid.  He reports seventeen and half hour shifts with hardly any breaks and in chapter twelve he writes that, “a plongeurs work is more or less useless.” It was a dead-end job, which, he concluded, existed for the benefit of a small and wealthy clientele and was engaged in solely to sustain the basic impoverished survival of the employee. Beyond economics Orwell believed “this instinct to perpetuate work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob.” The plongeur,he wrote, “is kept at work because of a vague feeling (by the rich) that he would be dangerous if he had leisure” and the only alternative to the status quo is “some dismal Marxist utopia”. Orwell kept this experience in perspective, but this never stops him from analysing the bigger picture:

“[A] plongeur is one of the slaves of the modern world. Not that there is any need to whine over him, for he is better off than many manual workers, but still, he is no freer than if he were bought and sold. His work is servile and without art; he is paid just enough to keep him alive; his only holiday is the sack […. He has] been trapped by a routine which makes thought impossible. If plongeurs thought at all, they would long ago have formed a labour union and gone on strike for better treatment. But they do not think, because they have no leisure for it; their life has made slaves of them.”

Despite doing better then many of the world’s manual workers, young people who invested years of education and thousands of pounds in their countries future, by studying hard, are now at the mercy of the managerial class. A recent report in the Guardian published a catalogue of intern testimony involving 12-hour shifts, office humiliation, sexual harassment, workplace injury and impossible workloads, most of which were (and are) endured outside the legal protections of the paid employee, without compensation and tolerated for months on end due to the promise of non-existent jobs waiting for them in a non-existent future. Graduates are regularly exploited across the industries of advertising, charity, fashion, journalism, politics and doubtlessly many more. Often they end up exactly where they started, unemployed but with their dreams deferred.

Throughout modern history, stability has gone hand in hand with prosperity. Six years after Orwell published his first book, the world ignited. Now, for the first time since Berlin delivered his speech on the ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ in 1958, there is an educated generation in the west expecting to be worse off then their predecessors. If the price of living and achieving continue to fly ahead of the modest increases in the average wages, “freedom” as only negative liberty will begin to lose some of its power.  

As in any ice age, we won’t be able to see everything we have lost during this great recession until it is all over and the snow has finally thawed. Meanwhile Schrödinger’s generation is both alive and dead at once, capable of anything but denied the opportunity to prove it, instead marching on in drudgery while abandoning ambitions at the side of the road. We might never know what we could have achieved if we’d had the chance. What we can see is a meek and limited political will to solve the epidemic of youth-unemployment as young people increasingly disconnect from the electoral process. Meanwhile, those who do find work will now have to work harder for longer and for less and most of us don’t expect anybody to do anything about it. 


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