There is more than one ‘lost generation’. We have seen at least two in the past months as young people have taken to the streets. Students have protested against fee rises and now a hard core urban youth have taken the stage. On both occasions, the media have focused on the violent scenes – clashes with police and attacks on property, claiming student protesters were infiltrated by anarchists and that rioters were ‘classless’; but these two groups would seem to represent very different constituencies.
On the one hand, the student protestors can be defined as middle- or ‘aspirational’ working- class. They’ve played by the rules and worked hard at school but quickly became politicised in response to the way university is being put beyond their reach and that of their younger brothers and sisters. Despite government and opposition promises, they realise their generation will be the first to be worse off than their parents. Even if many will eventually find work, in many cases it will not be anywhere near commensurate with their hard earned qualifications and may be part-time and ‘para-professional’ at best.
On the other, the urban rioters –The Guardian (12/08/12) estimating that almost 80% of those up in court were under 25 – the ‘criminals who shame the nation’ as The Telegraph called them (10/8/11), have become marginal to society. Failed by an academic education system, without work and without hope, they no longer play by any rules. Not having any commitment to ‘fairness’ or any faith in ‘justice’, they were referred to by the New Labour acronym of NEET (Not in Employment Education or Training) they have become youth’s new ‘underclass’. Not ‘political’ compared to the students, according to some Manchester youngsters interviewed by BBC News (11/08/11) – though not we assume, charged with any of the violence – the riots were ‘the best protest ever’ against a system that denied them access to the consumer goods they see flaunted around them.
There have been opportunities for these two groups to come together – working-class FE students joined the student protests against fees and to demand the restoration of Educational Maintenance Allowances – but it’s difficult to imagine them ever being united. Even though they often live next door in the same neighbourhoods, ducking and diving at the same part-time McJobs – if they are lucky. Also, the number of young people who have taken to the streets still remains comparatively small. Most haven’t!
Nor have most young people’s woes been immediately caused by the recession or by the cuts that followed. As our book argues, they are the result of long-term socio-economic changes in the labour market. Nevertheless, recession has certainly worsened the situation of all youth. Their return to the streets has also coincided with the arrival of a government with little more than a ‘free market’ approach to the youth labour market that leaves the NEETs to rot in gangland.
For all its limitations, New Labour at least introduced the Future Jobs Fund, reduced the number of NEETs to a claimed 8% of school-leavers (now 15%) plus introduced the EMAs that the Coalition have all but abolished. The number of university places were greatly increased to nearly reach Tony Blair’s target of 50% of the age-range – 47% of young women (42% of young men).
Now as the economy flat-lines, youth unemployment remains at the highest level since records began and an estimated 600,000 people under 25 have never had a day’s work in their lives. So nearly all young people face bleak futures and stark choices. Despite wanting to be seen supporting ‘the squeezed middle,’ Cameron and his Education Ministers, Gove and Willetts, clearly believe too many working-class people have gone to university. So the Coalition are pricing them out – offering instead ‘apprenticeships without jobs’ and more unpaid ‘work experience’.
Tory supporters like The Telegraph editorial above and the ubiquitous star of Tory conferences, Katharine Birbalsingh, have also accused the school system of being at least partially responsible for causing the riots with Cameron and Gove calling for more discipline in classrooms. As in the 1970s, when industrialists declared ‘I blame the teachers’ for the unemployment they were themselves creating, schools and colleges are being blamed for an employment crisis not of their making.
Fortunately, the vast majority of ‘ordinary’ youngsters will not riot; but without economic policies that ensure reasonable employment prospects and at least a sniff of prosperity, will they continue to cram for exams when they have little chance of getting into the top universities? Or will they be tempted by cut-price ‘apprentice-degrees’ in FE or dodgier training agencies?
It may be that the riots will tip them towards the worst of both worlds – getting even more into debt (‘a small mortgage’, as the new NUS President describes degrees estimated at £60,000) in desperate hopes of a secure job in three or four years, ‘when the economy has picked up’. Thus they may continue to scramble up the down-escalator of devalued qualifications so as not to fall into the ‘underclass’ beneath; but they may not be so far from them as their parents think!