The politics of pester power

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik complain about the economic legacy left to today’s young adults by the baby boomers, but their only alternative is an intergenerational guilt-trip.

David Bowden

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In the final episode of Nineties BBC sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, the show’s time-traveller hero Gary Sparrow is forced to choose between his two lives: his real life in contemporary suburbia, and his fantasy one in 1940s East End London. His friend Ron encourages him to stay in the past, observing that foresight can be a wonderful thing – especially about the Sixties. ‘Think of all the things you can see with your own eyes – you can actually say you were at Woodstock’, Ron reasons. ‘Yes’, sighs Gary, ‘but by then I’ll be middle-aged and won’t approve’.

The joke is particularly revealing because, in the show, Gary had massively profited from foresight and the creativity of future generations: a running joke has him claiming credit for writing some of the great pop songs of the Sixties, particularly The Beatles. In the end, fate decides on behalf of Sparrow: he ends up trapped in the past. It was a happy compromise for an early evening BBC sitcom, enabling him to escape his loveless modern marriage and unfulfilled existence without having to properly do the dirty: thanks to modern medicine he even gets to see the Nineties as an old man. Even in the most outlandish fiction, it seems, you can only ever go forwards, and never back.

The authors of Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth would contend that their book is a work of agitprop rather than fiction: indeed, the working title was originally Manifesto for the Jilted Generation. Yet while Ed Howker and Shiv Malik have certainly captured a certain mood, the political contention of their book shares more in common with Sparrow’s lament than they realise. Like him, they feel the future holds less lustre than it used to, and like him, they feel torn between the inevitable disappointments of nostalgia and the possible disappointments of the future.

Their arguments will be familiar to anyone who has picked up a newspaper, listened to a radio discussion or watched a TV debate since the effects of the economic crisis started to bite. Like Agamemnon in The Oresteia, Britain’s ‘baby boomers’ stand accused of sacrificing their children for the sake of personal enrichment and greed. Having benefited orgiastically from the spoils of postwar reconstruction – the founding of the welfare state, university expansion, property booms and all the attendant excitement of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll – the boomers have, we are told, damned later generations to the Furies of debt, austerity and uncertainty.

Howker and Malik argue that boomers, by the sheer size of their demographic, run Britain like a cartel – with boomer politicians appealing to boomer voters with policies, benefits and tax breaks designed to look after their own interests at the expense of everyone else. Even before the economic crisis, there had been much dark muttering about the ‘ageing timebomb’ in society, but proposals for even moderate changes to the pension age have brought uproar. The same greying commentators who bash the young for being self-absorbed, lazy and feckless are the ones who voted in successive governments on the basis that there was ‘no such thing as society’, sold off state-owned housing on the cheap and then built an economy around inflated house prices, and declared war on skilled unionised industries while replacing them with increasingly privatised and devalued university degrees and McJobs.

Howker and Malik are far from alone in this damning assessment. Indeed, the boomers have even beaten them to it: Jilted Generation follows hot on the heels of Conservative minister David Willetts’ The Pinch – How Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back (see spiked’s review here) and Francis Beckett’s What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?, both of which argue that the boomers have to share the bulk of the pain of austerity.

A few, such as boomer enfant terrible Martin Amis and broadcaster Sarah Dunant, have even gone so far as to suggest voluntary euthanasia to ease the burden on the young (semi-jokingly). Yet Jilted Generation is the first serious attempt from Generation Y to take up the problem from their own perspective, aimed as much at their politically apathetic contemporaries as those greedy grannies.

The authors are clearly both bright young journalists and the book is heavily researched and sets out its case starkly: it is difficult to argue with their complaints about the miserable state of Britain’s housing stock, especially in how excessive planning legislation and absence of state expenditure in infrastructure plays into estate agents’ hands. They are crisply effective at painting the grim realities of a job market shorn of worker solidarity and where stingy benefits and handouts have replaced any notion of the right to work or genuine attempts to solve the underlying problems of the real economy. Most significantly, as the title refers to the first generation to pay tuition fees, they recognise the extent to which university education has been privatised and politicised as a way of serving the economy.

As two fully paid-up members of Generation Y (they are both under 30), like me they have largely come of age in a post-political era, following the end of the Soviet Union and the politics of left-and-right. As such, they are refreshingly free of the false tribalism and fantasy nostalgia for the Seventies that is dominating current debates around the economy and Tory cuts. But it is this same absence of political baggage which proves their undoing.

Thus, Howker and Malik accidentally fall for some of the most potent myths of the post-political age, primarily that the left – and with it any significant case for a progressive alternative to capitalism – was not defeated in prolonged stages throughout the twentieth century in open political warfare, but that victory was somehow stolen from them by the neo-liberal conspiracies of Thatcher and Reagan (the ‘jilted generation’ are those born after 1979). While Howker and Malik are far from alone in this error, their uncritical acceptance of this leads them badly awry. Unable properly to contextualise the rise of Thatcherism and its ilk as a brutal and desperate method of kick-starting capitalism following the crises of the early Seventies, they see the enemy as greed-is-good individualism rather than underlying problems within the system itself. For all their appeals to understanding the past so we can learn from its mistakes, the answer is never going to be to party like it’s 1978.

Frustratingly, Howker and Malik regularly stumble upon interesting insights into the problems confronting society, but then a failure of imagination lets them down. They seem unable to conceive that Generation Y is far from unique in facing uncertainty and economic hardship as young adults. Indeed, it is boomers’ memories of genuine postwar austerity that help to explain that generation’s political agency and self-interest, which in turn partially explains successive governments’ attempts to pacify them. Howker and Malik also rather meekly accept the use of universities as economic finishing schools based on market principles – they simply want a vague notion of ‘fairness’ applied to the cost of higher education.

But the most aggravating aspect of Jilted Generation is that the authors are sharp enough to detect the schizophrenic attitude of older generations to the young, but rather than challenge these prejudices, they seek to indulge them. The book plays on the politics of fear mercilessly, ascribing every moral panic from youth crime and binge drinking to mass migration and elder abuse to being jilted by the boomers. Generation Y has been infantilised, apparently, through being unable to gain access to what Richard Sennett dubs the ‘narrative of identity’: that is, growing up through fulfilling core aspects of ‘the adult experience’, such as home ownership, financial independence, starting a family and so on.

Yet while it is certainly true that today there is something of a crisis of what it means to be an adult in an ever-changing world, where traditional conceptions of family life and human relationships are breaking down, Jilted Generation can offer only an infant’s response. The baby boomers will forever be defined as the generation that saw the entrance of the teenager on to the cultural agenda – followed by the aggressive courting of this new demographic group by advertisers eager to tap their expanding disposable incomes. Generation Y, in turn, can be effectively defined as the generation where ‘pester power’ came to the fore: advertising was now aimed at children, relying on their unique powers of persuasion and manipulation to tap their parents’ and grandparents’ ever-growing disposable incomes. Jilted Generation is the politics of pester power, where every dark art of emotional blackmail, and every admission of guilt from the older generations, can be deployed in order to be bought off.

Howker and Malik – along with the petulant Neil Boorman – are only going where the likes of Willetts and Beckett have gone before. But that very fact should offer the gravest warning to Generation Y of the dangers of looking to their elders to lead. Like Gary Sparrow at Woodstock, they are not prepared to engage in the world as free-thinking adults benefitting from the accumulated knowledge of what has gone before, but merely as ciphers acting out pre-designated roles.

When I took part in a debate with Howker and Malik on this topic at the Battle of Ideas festival last month, one young woman stood up to express her frustration that, as much as she wanted to start a family, the uncertainty of Generation Y-ers made this impossible. It was easy to feel sympathy for her, and everyone who values the future of society should have reason to support measures such as free universal childcare, health, education and the like. It is difficult to disagree with Joyce McMillan’s recent assertion that ‘any society which cannot provide its young people with an effective transition to adult status, around the age of 21, is essentially destroying its own future’.

But one might reflect that, for the vast majority of human beings throughout history, there has never been a time when one could feel entirely comfortable having children. If there is one unfortunate legacy of the boomers which Generation Y should throw out, it is that parenthood is a precise science requiring government regulation and intervention, and the blithe acceptance across the generation gap of Larkin’s oft-cited line that ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’. If Generation Y had an education which was not just equal, but effective, they may bear in mind Auden’s warning that the ‘poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman’.

Generation Y may also reflect that access to universities is not just expensive and, in Kevin the Teenager’s words, ‘so unfair’. The institutions themselves have become degree factories hollowed out by impact agendas, and education is now measured on its economic worth.

Today’s young adults face particular difficulties and the future can look bleak, but let’s not pretend that bringing your kids into a world where you don’t own your home, or can only afford to feed them chips, is somehow as bad as one where they will die of malnutrition, polio or any number of real risks faced by my own boomer parents growing up in postwar south London (neither of whom went to university).

This is a timely reminder, because politics is being redrawn from the old poles of right and left to the new divide of being pro-growth or anti-growth. If the boomers have jilted Generation Y in any one clear way, it is bequeathing them an intellectual climate in which calls for population controls and restrictions on freedom of movement (whether through anti-trafficking controls or campaigns against airport expansion) and speech (no platform at university, no ‘hate speech’ elsewhere) are seen as progressive, and politically apathetic young people are lavishly praised for being ‘radical’ for unthinkingly taking up these tropes.

What sticks in the craw is that, having seen the benefits of postwar economic growth, the likes of Anatole Kaletsky then tell us the best the young should hope for is more of the anaemic low-growth economy of the past couple of decades. Jilted Generation is therefore strongest when it is demanding more: more housing, more pay and more jobs. If the jilted generation wants to make something of itself, its members need to do what every adult does: challenge the prejudices and received wisdom of their parents, and engage with the world on their own terms as human subjects and agents of change. After all, as Gary Sparrow’s friend knew, the future potentially holds many historic events.

David Bowden is a spiked columnist and co-founder of the Institute of Ideas’ Current Affairs Forum.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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