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Is there a war waged against British youth?

Disparaging youth is the order of the day in British politics.

Last updated: 27 Jun 2014 09:31
Yiannis Baboulias

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and the far-right has been featured in The New Statesman, Vice UK, Open Democracy, LRB and The Guardian.
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Recent welfare cuts in the UK have targeted benefits for youth [Getty Images]

Over the past few years there has been a disturbing trend in the UK to pursue policies that discipline and punish youth. While the student protests of 2010 and the summer riots of 2011 should have been clear signs for the political class that they are failing to engage young people or meet their needs in any meaningful way, we are witnessing the exact opposite. The youth (age 17-35 also known as the Millennials or Generation Y) face underemployment, cuts in education spending, mandatory work programmes for those on benefits, and increasing competition for housing.

Back in the 2010 general elections, 48 percent of university students voted for the Liberal Democrats, who went on to form a coalition government with the Conservatives. Despite a pre-election pledge not to increase tuition fees by the Liberal Democrats, they were increased by 300 percent to $15,278. In 2011 again, when the police's behaviour sparked city-wide tensions in London, politicians blamed it on the supposed "broken society" rather than on their neglect of the youth.

In the past four years, the Conservatives and Labour have pushed for their fair share of youth welfare cuts. British prime minister David Cameron has proposed cutting housing benefits for people under-25 in the 2013 Conservative conference. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband followed suit a few weeks ago, announcing tax-funded jobs for those unable to find one for themselves or no benefits. Most recently, Miliband announced a plan to cut out-of-work benefits for young people who are not in training.

Politicians are clearly cracking down on "feckless youth" just so they can satisfy the readers of The Daily Mail. After UKIP's surge in the EU elections, both Labour and the Conservatives tripped over themselves to appeal to their voters (mostly Eurosceptics, closet racists and the disgruntled grey vote) and ignored the millions of Generation Y. How far will this disregard for the interests of the young people go?

We should not be surprised at British youth's overwhelming disillusionment with politics and refusal to vote: 59 percent of people between 17 and 21 won't vote in 2015 because the majority of them think politicians are more interested in big business, pensioners and celebrities. 

Fear of a precarious future

A recent survey shows that some 54 percent think that today's youth will have a worse life than their parents. While wages had been steadily rising for 25 years, they have consistently dropped since 2009, barely making up for 50 percent of inflation year on year. This had some pretty direct results: According to Ipsos Mori "Between 2008 and 2012 […] the median income for those in their 20s fell by 12 percent while it rose for pensioners". In 2013, the UK spent $236bn in pensions.

People & Power - English riots: people, police and politicians

Spending on unemployment, family, children and education combined, is not even half of that. And the proposed reforms on unemployment benefits for youth under 21 would save just $110m. Despite job creation going really well right now, zero-hour contracts are booming. It is estimated that 40 percent of young people are under-employed or unemployed in the UK.

Labour's decision to cut benefits for young people would only exacerbate this trend, which has its roots in assumptions about us, the youth, across the left-right spectrum of the political class. There is competition for introducing cut after cut targeting us; each political power trying to strike us harder. It's been assumed that our generation wants something for nothing. Far from it. We want to stick to the generational contract that's being torn apart in favour of the grey vote.

With the country's debt and deficit both on the rise, it is clear what is happening: The country is borrowing to maintain spending on welfare for the elderly, while completely ignoring the young, who will be the ones to pay off that debt in the future. This is debt created by this attitude in the first place and which benefited the-now older age groups when they were young themselves. This is not selfishness by the young; this is a heist by the baby-boomers.

It should not come as a surprise therefore that only 25 percent of young people support the welfare system. We are neither selfish, nor should be punished by youth welfare cuts. The truth is that we don't see how this current system is benefitting us. As Conservative politician David Willetts explains"One reason for that is that they do not feel they are getting much out of it. If you are young, you are probably going to be a net payer-in - unlike older generations who are mostly likely to be net-gainers - and that helps to explain the shift in attitudes."

A generational war?

To be fair, there is no malevolence in this. It's simply that the baby-boomers hold an overwhelming amount of power in finance and politics, and therefore their interests are well-looked after. Older people need support and young people believe in this, but their solidarity with the older generation needs to be reciprocated.

Witness - Children of the Riots

Being young has taken on some rather unflattering characterisations in the public that allows and encourages this behaviour by politicians. The Labour Party is riding on a limited but significant measure of public support for these policies. But even if this is so, why indulge public opinion that's been coerced into thinking immigration is to blame for everything wrong with Britain; turned to UKIP for an "authentic solution", and that is statistically proven to be wrong about key issues?

We know that in the minds of many, Millennials are supposedly selfish hedonists who want everything for free and for little effort and who will ditch honest work easily. For most, we are the Gilded Generation. But there is the other side, the one that sees us as the Jilted Generation, otherwise known as the first post-WW2 generation who will have a worse life than their parents did.

Is it fair to condemn young people to stay with their parents for years after they reach the legal age and be financially dependent on them? At the same time, according to data released by the Office for National Statistics, there has been a 25 percent increase in households with six or more people, and a 21 percent increase in unoccupied homes.

The older demographic owns the houses we pay high rentals for, refuses to pay us a fair wage as our employers, hikes our tuition fees they didn't have to pay when they studied - and on top of everything, removes the safety net that would allow us to flourish and work hard and contribute towards the general advancement of our society. How is this fair? Disparaging and disregarding youth should be exposed as discrimination and politicians who use it as a vote-winner should be shamed. We do not want a generational war, but cross-generational solidarity. Maybe then, we will have a party and a cause to vote for. And there's a lot of us, enough to make a difference.

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe, examining issues of precariousness, new nationalisms and independence movements across Europe. His work has been featured in the New Statesman, Vice and the Guardian among others.

Follow him on Twitter: @yiannisbab

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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