It’s just about late enough to comment on this article from last Sunday’s “The Observer Magazine”, titled “Lost Generation”. It’s quite long and rather mediocre. And the only thing that saves it is the fact that the issues the author raises are big and important. The whole article can be summarized thus:
“Our parents had free education, fat pensions, and second homes. We’ve got student debt and a property ladder with rotten rungs. Thanks very much, says Andrew Hankinson, BSc”.
Hankinson is pissed off because he’s 29, he’s unemployed, has no career and a soaring student debt. There are probably millions like him in this country.
I could probably write a book on the subject. In fact, I am considering doing just that. In the meantime, let’s look at what other people say. The comments online split equally between those who understand he’s onto something and sympathize with him and those who are basically telling him to “grow up”.
But those who are telling Hankinson to grow up are onto something as well. Yes, he could probably grow up a little. But if Hankinson is representative or a whole generation, as we have good reason to believe he is, it becomes rather pointless to ask everyone to “grow up”. The problem is precisely that this “Lost Generation” hasn’t been allowed to grow up.
But what do I know, right? Being a (kindof) Marxist, I always look at the economy for answers. Naomi Klein, in her book “No Logo”, has a section titled “Branded Word: Hobbies, Not Jobs”. She says:
“Most of the large employers in the service sector manage their workforce as if their clerks didn’t depend on their paychecks for anything essential, such as rent of child support. Instead, retail and service employers tend to view their employees as children: students looking for summer jobs, spending money or a quick stopover on the road to a more fulfilling and better-paying career.”
“(…) This internalized state of perpetual transience has been convenient for service-sector employers who have been free to let wages stagnate and to provide little room for upward mobility, since there is no urgent need to improve the conditions of jobs that everyone agrees are temporary.(…)”
“In general, the corporations in question have ensured that they do not have to confront the possibility that adults with families are depending on the wages that they pay (…). Just as factory jobs that once supported families have been reconfigured in the Third World as jobs for teenagers, so have the brand-name clothing companies and restaurant chains given legitimacy to the idea that fast-food and retail-sector jobs are disposable, and unfit for adults.”
“The fact is that the economy needs steady jobs that adults can live on.”
Now, people may say that wages have always been low, and that job security has never existed, and to some extent that may be right. Though I personally struggle with that last one. My grandfather spent 25 years in the same factory, and my mum and dad a good decade in their respective jobs, whereas we can be pretty certain no one from my generation will come anywhere near that record time.
But it’s pretty naive, not to mention entirely unproductive to claim that “things have always been the same”. The global economy has changed, and the labour market is different to what it was 50 years ago.
Hankinson may need to grow up. But so does this economic system, whose replacement is long long overdue.
PS: By the way, from now on, you can all start referring to me as “Mary Tracy, BSc”. HA!