Westminster should be trying to help the growing number of disillusioned and increasingly desperate young people, not punishing them.
Liam Kirkaldy is a freelance journalist
David Cameron today pledged to axe benefits for the under 25s as part of a ‘bold’ move to prepare young people for life in the real world. Cameron said:
“Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming housing benefit and opt for a life on benefits. It’s time for bold action here. We should ask, as we write our next manifesto, if that option should really exist at all.”
Powerful stuff. The problem, however, is that in a time of record youth unemployment most job seekers under-25 do not feel they have much of a choice in the matter (Comres recently found that 88 per cent of young people want to work or study).
With youth unemployment stalled, and over one million out of work (21 per cent), it is not at all clear what Cameron expects unemployed young people to do, or where he expects them to live – particularly if their parents have just been hit by the bedroom tax.
The decision is a headline grabber, and it is sure to provoke outrage. It is one thing to be unemployed in a dysfunctional economy, but quite another to hear a middle-aged, Eton-educated millionaire pompously lay the blame on you, with the implication that you don’t deserve support for housing or food.
The baby boomers – the post-war generation which largely dominates UK politics, as well as every other major area of public life – are the luckiest in the history of humanity.
They have lived through an era of unprecedented growth, they have never been conscripted for a war, and, thanks to the tireless efforts of the generation before them, they have had a welfare state to protect them should they become unemployed or sick.
The welfare system provided a social safety net – a minimum standard – below which no human being should fall.
Removing this safety net from underneath young people, while they are in a state of economic freefall, suggests that they are not viewed as real people.
But the tendency to ignore the young as political actors is not limited to this government.
Looking at politics through the lens of age can provide real insight into power dynamics in society today.
The ‘boom years’ saw a drive to increase house prices – at the expense of anyone hoping to get on the property ladder – while successive governments relaxed control of the financial system, without a thought for those who would spend their lives paying off the debt.
Recent parliaments, dominated by well-educated baby boomers, have withdrawn the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) in England, while introducing tuition fees. There is now talk of privatising student loans.
16-18 year olds can join the army but they cannot vote. They can pay tax, but they cannot play a part in choosing their political representatives.
In fact, if Cameron enacts today’s plans, a young person could pay national insurance for nine years, and then be refused any support if they lose their job.
To some extent the young only have themselves to blame for not being considered legitimate political actors in their own right – low voting turn-outs and widespread alienation do us few favours – and there is no way Cameron would have made today’s announcement if young people were a political force to be reckoned with.
But Westminster should be trying to help the growing number of disillusioned and increasingly desperate young people, not punishing them for the mess they have been born into.
Apart from anything else, it would be extremely dangerous for the political establishment to assume that the disenfranchisement of the young is not their problem.
The danger for society is that when the young do decide they want some power, they are unlikely to try and get it through voting – most learned their lesson from Nick Clegg’s treachery. Recent rioting across England is the tip of the iceberg.
The ball is in David Cameron’s court – and if he doesn’t return it, the young may just take it.
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