Thursday, 14 February 2008

The revolt of youth


I've posted before about the ever-growing gap between the achievements of those born in the 1940s - 1960s and those born since; we boomers have become accustomed to comfort and security, have substantial equity in a housing market increasingly unavailable to the young, and high expectations of care and medical security in our old age.

At a time when the media are demonising the young, and the fear of young people has replaced all the other fears as our national obsession, they're suffering multiple disadvantages that are only now beginning to be understood. Social mobility, so long taken for granted by my age cohort, has become moribund. As ippr concluded from a major study of those born in 1958 and 1970
shows that in just over a decade, personal and social skills became 33 times more important in determining relative life chances. At the same time, young people from less affluent backgrounds became less likely than their more fortunate peers to develop these skills. For those born in 1958, the connection between family background, personal and social skills, and success later in life was barely discernible. But for a significant proportion of those born in 1970, social immobility – the passing on of disadvantage through families – was clearly due to the connection between family background and personal and social skills.
The growth of the power of the central State since the 1970s, and the commensurate decline in the authority of the family, local institutions and the community had driven us into a corner where the young are no longer 'our' responsibility - they're the State's problem. But the State is only acting negatively; the young are the subject of ever-increasing restrictions on their freedoms, a squeezing of their opportunities, and their scape-goating as responsible for every frustration and problem we experience. Their lack of political engagement is taken as powerlessness, and this is the great danger. As we enter recession, the young are increasingly likely to feel the brunt of the pain. The assumption of the State will be that their unrest can be contained, that the same three mortally ill political parties, even though 98.7% of the electorate aren't members of them, and 16m voters are too disillusioned to vote for them, can continue to carve up the national cake in our - that is, the boomers' - favour.

Beware.

The fascist movement in Italy and the Nazi movement in Germany grew out of just such youthful frustration and a commitment to change the old order. I was talking last week to a couple of Italian lads, and whereas I saw the recent government collapse in Italy as just an amusing continuance of the post-war norm, there was a real anger and bitterness within them about the state of Italian politics. They burned with righteous anger. And although we remember Mussolini and Hitler at the bloated end of their days, at the start (above) they were lean as whippets, bright as buttons and galvanised their fellow young idealists.

'The revolt of youth' was the title of a piece from Italy in the NY Times written in 1921. At the time, no one could have predicted the war that came 18 years later that was to cost over 30m lives, or could have linked it with the frustrations of the young, but the author wrote presciently:
There has always been this transient and oratorical rebellion of youth against age. It has always been as frustrated and sadly fugitive as youth itself. But youth has never before been quite so dissatisfied with the world in which it finds itself. It has never been so aware and critical of the failures of its elders. It has never been organised into an effective political movement like the Italian Fascisti. Is that transient, too, or does it mean the young are really out to dispute the political mastery of the world with the old?

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