Originally published in New Statesman, 10 January 2014, by Laurie Penny
It is difficult to quantify despair. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever filled in one of those strange little forms that require you, with helpful tick-boxes, to rank your mood from sunny to suicidal. Nonetheless, the latest survey from the Prince’s Trust tells the public what youth campaigners, activists and anyone who frequently meets people in their teens and twenties already know: life for young men and women in Britain today is tough unless you’ve got a trust fund. Nine per cent of respondents said that they “have nothing to live for” and a third of young unemployed people had considered suicide.
Across the world, young people are paying for austerity with their health, their hopes and dreams. In the past three years, I’ve travelled to countries and states where the future has snapped shut suddenly like a set of incisors. Homeless kids in New York told me how the American dream had become a nightmare from which they could not wake. Despairing graduates in Greece described how any hope of a secure or fulfilling future had been stolen and sold back for more than they could afford.
Britain is not the only country gleefully gouging the young, desperate for every penny they don’t possess, but there’s a special vindictiveness to the Tory approach. The Chancellor’s first announcement of the new year pledged another round of cuts to the already lacerated and bleeding social security budget, and top of the list was housing benefit for the under-25s. What this will mean is quite simple. For young people who cannot afford their rent – whether or not they are in work – there will no longer be subsidies available to ensure they don’t get evicted. They will be forced to move back in with their parents, which isn’t an option for everyone; to move away from their friends, and their employment if they have any; or to become homeless, sleeping on sofas or in shelters.
The message being sent to the next generation could be summed up with a second-person pronoun and any given expletive. You don’t vote for us; why should we care what happens to you?
Of course, young people are not the only ones struggling to cope. This week, news broke of the death of a 58-year-old grandfather, Shaun Pilkington, who shot himself after finding out that his sickness benefits were to be stopped, telling friends he was “unable to cope”. The Department for Work and Pensions may not be keeping a tally of the number of disabled people and rejected benefit claimants who have committed suicide, but activist groups are and the toll is mounting. If you’re not part of the elite, or its core vote in swing constituencies, you can find cause for consternation by flipping open any paper. So, is there anything special about the way that millions of young people are finding themselves forced to contemplate 50 years of fear, debt and depression?
There is, and here’s why. The British government, like many others, is no longer even pretending to care about how or if the next generation gets to thrive. It is demonstrably content to sacrifice its young. That quality is not just spiteful; it is a recipe for social and cultural self-annihilation.
What are the alternatives? “Finding work” for young people, even the lowest-paid and least secure work, seems to be the only solution on the table, even from well-meaning groups such as the Prince’s Trust. The government’s sole response to the survey was that it was doing “everything possible” to help young people find work – chiefly “incentivising” them with the threat of eviction in a stagnant job market. What it is not doing is helping any young person find work that pays a liveable wage, or a wage at all – and in the meantime it’s getting harder to afford the rent and bills.
The assumption that work is a passport to dignity and security, that work is what makes life worth living, is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is almost heretical to think otherwise. But the problem isn’t just the lack of work. It’s also the lack of hope. Young people leaving school and university can no longer kid themselves that their future is likely to include a stable place to live, love and get on with growing up, even if they do manage to find paid work.
Here’s what is notably not being said to the young and desperate: you are more than your inability to find a job. Your value to a potential employer is not the sole measure of your worth as a person. If you can find only precarious, exhausting, depressing work, or if you can’t find work at all, that doesn’t mean you are useless, lazy, or a “waste of space”.
These things are easy to say and they also have the distinct advantage of being true, which is useful when you’re trying to talk to a young person seized by despair. I’ve found myself in that position at regular intervals over the past few years. When somebody with their whole life ahead of them is hurting, you find yourself wanting to tell them anything at all that will stop them sinking into hopeless self-harm.
The one thing we’re not telling them is the truth: that, however worthless you feel, you deserve to have enough to eat, somewhere to live, clothes on your back and other vital parts, to be loved, to know that you matter. You deserve those things whatever is happening with the economy, because everyone does, because human beings are worth more than their usefulness to capital.
The most important political battles are fought on the territory of the imagination. To save a generation from despair, it won’t be enough to hassle them into low-paying jobs. We must allow young people to imagine lives where they will not be measured purely on the basis of their ability to turn a profit – and be found wanting.