Earlier this week, David Willets suggested that many of the young people involved in the riots in England’s cities belong to families with absent fathers. It was a surprisingly unguarded moment from the usually composed higher education minister. What is more surprising, however, is that many within government circles seem to think that blaming the parents is plausible as an alternative to the explanations centred on poverty and inequality favoured on the left – as if family breakdown, like the unrest itself, has nothing to do with the experience of hardship.
In the ongoing search for the deeper causes of the riots, the shortcomings of parental support are certainly a key part of the story; yet it is primarily the state, rather than mums and dads, that is at fault in this regard. When the state abdicates its role in providing due care towards those on the threshold of adulthood, outbreaks of super-sized adolescence are almost inevitable.
A generation apart
Ironically it is was David Willets, in opposition, that did as much as anyone to reignite interest in the kind of generational analysis that it is clearly required now. His book The Pinch documented how the baby boom cohort – born between the Second World War and the mid-1960s – had essentially stolen their children’s future through recklessly under-investment, and a reshaping of the labour market, fiscal policy and even popular culture in accordance with their generational interests (it is of course fortunate for Willets that the only baby boomer prime ministers that Britain will ever have both belonged to the Labour Party).
As Paul Rogers wrote in OurKingdom:
Many of those involved belong to a generation of 16-30 year-olds who are experiencing or facing unemployment, and life-prospects that are far more limited than their elders. Their frustrations are further exacerbated by real anger at the ostentatious wealth of elites, especially bankers.
The litany of problems faced by today’s young people has been well-documented. Youth unemployment, for instance, is higher now than at any point since records began – and those that are in employment are increasingly likely to be in temporary or unstable jobs with limited opportunities to progress up the career ladder. The housing experience of today’s young people is also radically different to that of their parents. As Ed Howker and Shiv Malik point out in Jilted Generation, a decline in construction, increase in prices despite falling standards and sizes, sale of public housing, and the end of tax relief for mortgage interest payments have all combined to make buying a home a daunting and almost impossible prospect for many young people, exacerbated by the appalling state of the private rental market.
The tragedy of the baby boomers, as Willets points out in The Pinch, was a failure to recognise the sacrifices of their parents’ generation in the making of their collective good fortune. A belief in their own ingenuity allowed an asocial individualism, long present in English political thinking, to become dominant in popular discourse and ultimately policy prescriptions.
This may explain why the baby boomers have been largely indifferent to enormous inequalities among their own cohort, as well as blind to the problems of young people today. Instead of trying to understand and address the barriers that prevent the attainment of full citizenship, we have demonised young people as lazy and irresponsible. The riots have to be seen as part of the response. The fact that not everyone feels like rioting is almost irrelevant. Violence and criminality, as Helen Dexter explains well, will always be minority pursuits, but they would not occur in this highly destructive and co-ordinated way – creating conditions for more hardened criminals to exploit – unless the culprits were the thin edge of a very disaffected wedge.
It is clear that for the Conservative Party leadership, the riots reinforce the image of young people they had already formed, leading to ‘increased demonisation and even more social exclusion of the young’, as Carolyne Willow (of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England) argues. Willow is right to be highly concerned about the government’s shameful attempts to pressure the courts into speedy trials and excessive sentences, and its threats to remove the kind of safeguards designed to protect young people in the justice system. On Tuesday two young men were jailed for four years for inciting disorder on Facebook, even though none resulted. It is almost as if social media – the one place young people can be heard – was itself in the dock.
We seem to be telling ourselves that if only we had pre-emptively disciplined our youth in this way, the riots would not have happened. The riots encompassed criminal behaviour, some of it very serious. It may even have been mindless. Punishment must follow, because being punished is one of the main ways we learn to distinguish between right and wrong. But the lesson will be lost if the punishment is unjust. Many of the rioters, whether they are conscious of this or not, are rioting because they do not think the promise of a liberal democracy has any meaning for them. We must not make this true.
Postponement of adulthood
Conservative parliamentary candidate Shaun Bailey came close to articulating this argument, albeit perhaps inadvertently. He rightly recognised the riotous behaviour not simply as opportunistic crime and thuggery, but also as ‘a perennial pastime of young people, almost a rite of passage, to balk at authority figures’. Of course this doesn’t explain why it is predominantly young adults rather than teenagers that seem to have been most destructive, and why this perennial pastime has been indulged on such a mass scale.
Bailey’s view on the cause is that ‘personal responsibility and community responsibility has been replaced by state responsibility’, echoing Iain Duncan Smith’s conclusion that ‘welfarism’ is to blame. It is little more than the invective that we should ‘take away their benefits’, betraying the ghastly assumption that everyone involved in the riots must be ‘on benefits’ (and happily so) and a profound ignorance about what these benefits might be. The state may have got too big in some ways – there are plenty on the left arguing the same thing – but if we look at this from a generational perspective, are we really saying that the state is doing too much for today’s generation of young people? In contrast, as Andrew Mycock has pointed out, ‘there has been a gradual abrogation of the responsibilities of the state towards young people which is rarely acknowledged’.
To appreciate the nature of the state’s retreat, we need to understand not simply that young people are experiencing hardship, but precisely what kind of hardship. In short, the attainment of full adulthood has been postponed. There may have been a time when child-rearing was largely done at 18 or 21; good parents had put their offspring on a path to owning their own home, starting a family of their own and, most importantly, embarking on a career (or at least getting a job). In short, full adulthood, and the taking on of adult responsibilities, was within their grasp. In reality no generation but the baby boomers has experienced anything like this idyll – but nevertheless it is the myth that has dominated our generational imaginary in recent decades. But even these basic tenets of adulthood and building blocks of responsible citizenship are now far-off fantasies for many young people. Parents are in no position to rectify this. All they can do is work hard to make sure their children are best placed to take advantage of scarce opportunities – a phenomenon which we see clearly in education, where middle-class parents increasingly feel compelled to cross the line between normal parental concern, and ‘gaming’ the system at the expense of others families.
And herein lies the genesis of inequality among today’s young people, making hardship even harder to bear for many. This inequality has led to a conflation of the demonisation of the poor and demonisation of youth, the kind that is epitomised by the disgusting ‘chav’ label and the soul-destroying Vicky Pollard caricature.
We have of course witnessed a breakdown of personal responsibility among the rioters, but the means by which a sense of responsibility develops have dried up, largely because the means by which young people can imagine accumulating wealth and creating opportunities for themselves have been taken away. We need to avoid an arbitrary juxtaposition between individuals, families, society and the state as the cradle of decent behaviour. For too many young people today, being responsible has no reward.