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The youth ruse: mobilizing concern for the younger generation

Reading through The Trials of Generation Y, a series of inflammatory headlines pit the young against the old, while skirting around the question of deepening inequalities within all age groups.

Mayssoun Sukarieh Stuart Tannock
6 April 2016
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Old and young. Shutterstock/Xesal. All rights reserved.In March 2016, the UK-based Guardian newspaper launched a two week series of articles called The Trials of Generation Y, supported by one of the country’s best known social justice research and campaigning organisations, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. The purpose of the series was to investigate what the newspaper calls a “perfect storm of factors besetting an entire generation of young adults around the world.”

Drawing on a combination of individual testimonial, statistical analysis and editorial commentary, the series of more than twenty articles sought to trace how, “a combination of debt, joblessness, globalisation, demographics and rising house prices is depressing the incomes and prospects of millions of young people across the developed world, resulting in unprecedented inequality between generations.”

The Trials of Generation Y is the latest in a series of media and policy narratives that have proliferated globally over the last decade and that combine a surface-level rhetoric of expressing concern for the plight of the young with an underlying push to promote business-friendly agendas that serve the interests of economic elites. The youth ruse is simple but alarmingly effective – and even well-meaning, sincere advocates of youth rights and interests can be at risk of falling into its trap if its underlying political project is not identified and analysed clearly.

The ruse works like this: first, focus on claims of generational conflict and inequality as a substitute for discussion of increasing class (and race and gender) conflict and inequality; second, establish a close parallel between the needs and interests of youth and those of business and economic elites; and third, position economic elites as the natural and foremost champions of the young in contemporary global society and economy.

Reading through The Trials of Generation Y, we thus find a series of inflammatory headlines that pit the young against the old, while skirting around the question of deepening inequalities within all age groups: “Income for young British families falls as pensioners prosper,” “Stop ripping off the young. It’s time for older people to pay their fair share,” “How Generation Y is paying the price for baby boomer pensions,” and “UK faces permanent generational divide.” We also find that the spokespersons for the global plight of the young include senior economists at financial institutions such as HSBC and Willis Towers Watson; the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi; and former Conservative MP David Willetts, who as Minister for Universities in the UK in 2010 presided over the tripling of tuition fees for all university students in England.

Indeed, one article tells us directly that “the silver lining for the younger generation struggling to find a decent job” is that “many of the world’s most respected policy advisers understand their plight,” such as the “International Monetary Fund, [and] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the policies promoted through the Guardian series focus not on redistributing wealth and power from the wealthy to the poor, but rather on labor market liberalisation, social welfare cutbacks and taking from the elderly to give to the young.

The paper quotes Labour MP Frank Field, currently chairing an “Intergenerational Fairness Inquiry” for the UK House of Commons that is investigating whether pensions in the country should be reduced – in the name of helping the young. A UK banking industry spokesman likewise claims that the reason salaries and wages can’t be increased is that “the retired are hoovering up so much cash there is no money left.”

Mario Draghi, meanwhile, argues that “strong labour laws” in Europe are harming the young, and “there should be a ‘more open, flexible, innovative and business-friendly society’ that did not disadvantage new workers because companies were afraid of taking on new staff.”  It is worth recalling that all of this is being said in a country that, like elsewhere around the world, is currently experiencing historic levels of inequality, where the 100 wealthiest people have as much money as the poorest 18 million.

Understanding their plight

If such arguments were just limited to a series of articles in one British newspaper, they might be of limited interest. Yet, this youth-saving, generational conflict rhetoric has become a dominant political and policy frame in the post-financial crisis era. It is widely claimed that youth were the group that was hardest hit by the global recession – and that the primary culprit are other generations: adults, baby boomers, older workers and retirees.

A popular literature arguing for the existence of entrenched generational conflict has emerged on both sides of the Atlantic – for example, The Clash of Generations by Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns, Jilted Generation by Shiv Malik, and The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future by David Willetts (both Malik and Willetts feature prominently in the recent Guardian series). In the United States, the conservative Young America’s Foundation has created a “Youth Misery Index,” which claims to demonstrate a “statistically significant relationship” between state spending and intervention in the economy, and increased numbers of miserable young people. A 2012 article in Esquire, called “The War Against Youth,” claimed that “the recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that.” In one particularly vivid and viral piece of imagery, former Italian Prime Minister Guiliano Amato suggests that “the older generations have eaten the future of the younger ones.”

To critique such rhetoric is not to claim that young people have not been suffering in the wake of the financial crisis. Absolutely, many have been, in just the ways that reports in the Guardian’s Trials of Generation Y suggest. Rather, it is to insist: first, on the need to recognize the existence of sharp social and economic inequalities within all age groups and generations; second, on the fact that many other social groups have suffered in the wake of the global financial crisis alongside young people (including many adults and retirees); and third, that the focus on youth is primarily being mobilized in the service of political agendas that not only don’t help other social groups in society, but often don’t help young people themselves.

Indeed, one does not usually have to look far to make these points. Even in the pages of the Guardian itself, there is plenty of evidence to question its frame of the primacy of a deep generational divide. Many of the individuals interviewed by the Guardian for its series actually suggest that the real inequalities for youth that concern them are those that exist between “youngsters with rich parents” and those without. As Paul Johnson, director of the UK Institute of Fiscal Studies, told the paper, “I think the real unfairness comes in the sense that it’s become more and more important whether your parents happen to have [own] a house.”

Statistical data presented by the Guardian on changes in income over the past three decades for eight western countries, that the paper frames as showing how workers in their 20s have lost ground compared to the national average, actually shows, for every country, workers in older age groups losing ground as well. Just the week before it launched its series on the “perfect storm” that was supposedly engulfing as “entire generation of young adults around the world,” the Guardian ran a quite different type of story on the rise of a new “butler class” in London that is “made up of lawyers and financiers who service every need of the super-rich.”

One of the concerns of this new butler class is to help the wealthy “create dynasties” by ensuring that “families shared a vision of the purpose of their wealth over future generations,” by “creating family constitutions,” and by working to “not just prepare the money for the children, but prepare the children for the money.”

Youth unemployment

The issue of youth unemployment provides a telling example of how the youth ruse works. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, attention was quickly focused on the impact of the crisis on youth unemployment, and fears were widely raised of the dangers of a “lost generation.” Notably, business elites were at the forefront of raising the alarm: it was the Blackstone Group, for example, an American-based hedge fund headed by Stephen Schwarzman, that created the Global Youth Employment Agenda in December 2010, that sought to “elevate youth unemployment to a high priority issue” globally with a live CNBC broadcast from London.

Despite the headline attention, however, it may be surprising for many that the global financial crisis and ensuing recession actually had a greater impact on adult rather than youth unemployment, across all regions of the world. In fact, the ratio of youth to adult unemployment rates globally turns out to have improved during the 2007-2010 period. This is not to diminish the seriousness of global youth unemployment: for youth unemployment rates were already very high prior to the global financial crisis, and remained much higher than adult unemployment rates throughout the period.  The point, rather, is that the crisis had a massive impact on workers of all ages and social groups.

So why have business elites been so ready and willing to focus public and policy attention on the problem of youth unemployment? The sociologist David Ashton provides a clue in his analysis of youth unemployment in his 1986 book, Unemployment Under Capitalism. Ashton argues that:

To understand fully the causes of youth unemployment we need to make a distinction between two sets of factors: those which operate in periods of relatively full employment, and those which operate in periods of high unemployment. In the former it is the fact that young people are entering the market for the first time and tend to move from one job to another which creates high levels of unemployment; in periods of high unemployment it is the fall in aggregate demand, combined with changes in the distribution of occupations, which are responsible. 

In other words, it is only during periods of economic stability and growth that the causes of youth unemployment are radically different from those of adult unemployment; while during economic crises, causes of youth and adult unemployment are effectively the same. Responding to economic crisis by focusing on youth unemployment rather than unemployment overall, thus provides a way of diverting attention from the underlying causes of the crisis itself, and onto the more enduring challenges of entering the labor market that are commonly experienced by young people at the start of their working lives.

Labor market liberalisation

Through raising concern over the problem of youth unemployment, business and political elites around the world have been able to promote the same kinds of agendas and policies seen above in the recent Guardian series on the The Trials of Generation Y. These include calls for labor market liberalisation: throughout Europe, as Michele Tiraboschi points out, concern about youth unemployment has been “’exploited’ to justify – or perhaps to impose – major labour market reforms and deregulation on nation states overseen by central [European and international] institutions.” They include attacks on pensions and other social welfare benefits currently enjoyed by older generations, and the substitution of generational conflict concerns in place of attention to structural conflicts in society and the economy between the wealthy and the rest. Above all, they have been used to launch attacks on the alleged failure of public education systems and arguments for the need to tie education more closely to the needs of the market and interests of employers.

The problem with all these policies is not just that they transparently serve the interests of business elites. Nor is it just that they fail to address the needs of social groups ignored by the discourse – as well as harm groups who the discourse demonizes (pensioners, adult workers, etc.). It is also that there is little evidence to suggest that they do anything to help the young people in whose name these policies are now being mobilised. The impact of labor market liberalisation on reducing youth unemployment, for example, in the form of removing employment protection legislation (EPL), is not well supported by research. The ILO has found that “empirical evidence on the impact of EPL on youth unemployment is inconclusive,” and another review of the research literature found “no robust evident whatsoever linking … EPL to inferior youth labor market performance.”

In a historical conjuncture in which elites are so transparently using the youth ruse and invocations of generational war to mobilise public support for their own political interests and agendas, what alternatives exist?

Excellent examples may be found even in the pages of the Guardian itself. In 2012, in response to this same kind of rhetoric, a group calling itself Generations United for a Better Society, and comprised of trade unions, politicians, student and pensioner organizations from across the UK, issued a statement in the Guardian that insisted on the importance of cross-generational solidarity and organizing:

At a time of economic crisis, there is often a tendency to look for someone to blame. This time a politicians, thinktanks and elements in the media have started to point the finger at pensioners by suggesting that they have escaped the austerity measures at the expense of younger generations. Not only is this factually incorrect, it is extremely divisive. Young and old in fact share a number of concerns…. What this artificial generational conflict tries to hide is the real division in our society between rich and poor…. The cohesion of our society rests on valuing all ages, recognising the different contributions they can make, and championing a welfare state that continues to provide support from the cradle to the grave.

Similar groups and movements have appeared elsewhere around the world: in the US, Generations United, which brings together more than a hundred organizations committed to fostering intergenerational collaboration, likewise argues that “high unemployment … is an issue that touches all ages” and that “the generations are more alike than they are different in this area.”

It is this strong and clear commitment to cross-generational alliances, anti-austerity politics and class struggle – and not some superficial and misdirected concern for the young – that can best address the issues of unemployment, job insecurity, debt, homelessness and inequality that currently afflict both so many, not just among the young but individuals of all ages and life stages in contemporary global society.

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