Saturday, 31 January 2009
Recession fears for intergenerational conflict?
I've blogged before on the dangers of intergenerational conflict; in 2007 it was a polarisation between a generation growing profoundly wealthy on the rise in house prices, a generation that had enjoyed free university education, had secure pensions and whose values dominated our society, and a generation with no prospect of stepping onto the housing ladder, faced with working into their seventies and with a profound disengagement from those values.
Now the recession is hitting, I think the prospects for intergenerational conflict are growing.
The most vigorous and influential generation - variously termed 'Generation Y', 'the iGeneration', ''the Millennials' or 'the net generation' - is not a western but a global phenomenon. As globalisation has encouraged the growth of middle classes worldwide, in India and Brazil GenY have experienced the amenities of 'western' culture; in post-soviet Europe they are the generation that has grown up without the shadow of totalitarianism.
Generation Yers have more in common with eachother across the globe than they have with their parents. Shared values include impatience, a strong entrepreneurial drive, materialism and self-interest.
I've got a couple of Gen Yers in the office, and the contrast between my generation's approach and theirs couldn't be greater. They're very honest about their lack of loyalty; they'll move elsewhere as soon as they see a better deal. They are convinced they deserve more money. They resent my correcting their embarrassingly illiterate business letters before I let them go in the post. They won't give a minute more time than they're paid for, and although they take drug taking and same-sex relationships for granted, they can be quite shockingly illiberal, self-justifying and devoid of that degree of altruism and compassion that tends to run through my generation.
And it's this generation that will suffer most in a recession. They'll be amongst the first redundancies, or burdened with student debt will be unable to gain even a starter job. They still can't get on the housing ladder because banks aren't lending. They're faced with paying taxes all their working lives to pay for our boom, and paying even more taxes to pay for our old age welfare and health care. They've grown up without those ties of community or authority of intermediate institutions that would anchor them, and have never experienced recession. The shock will be great.
And I don't think they'll listen to political voices that call for patience, the long drag, struggle, bear it with virtue and all those nostrums that tend to resonate with my generation. They'll be impatient for rapid change. They'll want the rewards now that they feel are their due.
Politicians, especially Labour ones, still imagine that class is the dividing characteristic as we go into recession. I think it's age. The working-class trade unionist and the professional manager of my generation have more in common with eachother than either have with Generation Yers. And this, I think, has a real potential for intergenerational conflict.