Niall Ferguson has written for The Daily Beast declaring that young people should blame not Wall Street, but Baby Boomers. It is an argument that has long been made by the likes of David Willets. And some people on the left – most recently the excellent Laurie Penny – have taken these opportunities to argue that intergenerational justice is about divide and rule, and that the left shouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I disagree.
Of course, there have always been those who argue that all oppression is class oppression – that to talk about sexism, or ablism, or racism, or discrimination by sexuality or nationality is bourgeois deviationalism. They are, of course, wrong. Injustice can only be understood through a number of complex and interrelating lenses.
People who see no oppression but class oppression exist, but I don’t think most of those who argue that intergenerational justice is irrelevant, or, worse still, a right wing con believe that. So I hope that they will agree that saying that some baby boomers are more oppressed than some young people misses the point – just as some men are more oppressed than some women, the point is to look at how an injustice is broadly structured, not at whether trend holds true in every case.
Similarly, we must have an appropriate account of blame. It is easy to blame men for sexism. But it is much more useful to understand that patriarchy is to blame. That doesn’t mean that men individually and collectively aren’t involved in – key to – perpetuating patriarchy, but the complex architecture of our oppressive society is the problem. Similarly, it is easy at the moment to engage in banker blaming. And often it is useful. But it is important to understand that bankers are just people – usually from a particular class – who did what they were told by the system. And blame really lies with capitalism.
And so when we are looking at whether intergenerational justice is another useful lens, we must be clear what we are not doing. Unlike Niall Ferguson, we must not blame baby boomers. We must blame capitalism.
Which leaves two questions: first, is it the case that young people are being particularly screwed as compared with baby boomers? Secondly, is this oppression a useful way to understand what’s happening to society, and is it a useful way to organise?
With the first, I won’t go through thousands of statistics, but let’s look at two areas: employment, and housing. The overall unemployment rate is 7.9%. The youth unemployment rate is 20.5%. Thousands of young people are taking unpaid internships for the first time in this country. With housing, look at the proposals to change social housing tenancy rules – but only for new tenants, meaning that a new tenant in an average London flat might pay £248 a week whilst their more established neighbour £95 a week; or at cuts to the social housing building budget of 60% (whilst private sector building also collapses). The main group this hits is people looking for a new home – primarily young people.
Overall, taking into account all proposed cuts and tax rises, the IFS calculate that the group most impacted is families with children – the main group who either are in this category now, or will enter it in the term of this government were born after 1979. And this is to say nothing of fees, EMA, youth centre closures, etc.
Secondly, is this a useful way to explain things? If we don’t look at generations, I think we miss two key things about the way that the better bits of the social democratic consensus is being withdrawn. The first is that the ruling class has realised that it is easier to take things from people that they have not yet had than it is to take things from them that they have now.
This is why housing benefit changes are only being applied to those who are coming into the system now. This is why unemployment is structured as it is – given the size of recession and the system we have, there have been surprisingly few redundancies. Instead, cuts – for example to the civil service – have been made through ‘natural wastage’ and recruitment freezes. What this means is, in effect, by not recruiting young people. Look at many of the deepest cuts and we find the same thing – often, services are not being removed as much from those who use them now as they are from those who will need them in the future. The welfare state is being assaulted across the board, but it is being almost wholly rolled back ahead of our generation – taken from us before we have a chance to experience and become accustomed to it.
The second way that I think it can be useful to look at generations is that this helps us understand how systems change over time, and how they plan. So, for example it is too simplistic to say that neo-liberalism immediately started to screw ‘the 99%’. One of the reasons that Thatcher was re-elected so often was that she significantly subsidised the right to buy council houses. Talk to many people who took advantage of this and they will tell you that this was the one good thing she did. Talk to those looking for housing now – their children – and you will find out that the privatisation of council housing may have been a success for those to whom they were initially privatised, but that the failure to retain them in social ownership has been disastrous for the next generation. We can say similar things about other forms of privatisation – like PFI. Neo-liberalism can, for a while, bribe people into supporting it whilst building a social architecture which removes the levers of power from their hands – it gives to one generation in order to con them into selling the legacy they ought to have left their children.
So, is it useful to look at generations? Yes. That is not to say that we should look at generational inequality ahead of other forms of injustice. And it is not to say that this injustice is structured in the same sort of way as many others. But the generation who have known nothing but neo-liberalism is suffering a specific flavour of attack. We cannot sufficiently challenge this unless we understand it. Either we, the left, stand with this generation, point at capitalism, and encourage them to stand with others – old and young – as they face attack. Or we risk allowing the right to persuade them to simply blame baby boomers: we hand them to those who would seek to divide and rule. And that is dangerous.