This week, amidst the usual cycle of depressing new stories, there was buried a glimmer of hope. On Thursday, the bill which will allow 16 and 17 year olds the vote in the Referendum was passed. Whilst the reasons for the specific decision will be hotly contested (hint: more young people will probably vote Yes and the SNP are in charge) the principle shouldn’t be. The total disrespect shown to young people not just by politicians and the media but throughout our entire political, economic and social narrative is staggering. This tension cannot be overlooked or underestimated. As well as all the other attacks we are already facing – there is a generational war in our country we can’t afford to ignore.
This isn’t just the usual tale of the next generation rebelling against the last, the eternal view that every 15 year old has that they are masters of all knowledge and the universe; this is something genuinely toxic. Intergenerational relations are better on most levels than they have ever been. Most adults now socialise with a far greater mix of age groups than was true even 20 years ago. But the power imbalances and the economic, social and political inequalities they perpetuate are worse than ever.
We’re not just likely to die at a younger age than our parents but we live in a society which is much less structured to protect us and our interests than the one our parents grew up in. That doesn’t mean the olden days were amazing and it was definitely better to have lived in the East End of Glasgow in the 1960s, far from it. But there are a generation of young people have no faith in a society which has let them down, a society whose priorities and values they refuse to accept. Young people are more likely to support independence for a reason – because they are more likely to be in real need of it. There is an urgency to change their society not felt by older generations. Now is to time to bring forth that energy or at the very least get out its way.
The current no alternative, austerity politics works well at unpicking social bonds and targeting vulnerable groups for disproportionately harsh “punishment.“ Young people, like its other targets, had nothing to do with the current miserable state of things. Yet we have burdened them with the failings of this economy and society – and even found ways of blaming them for it.
1 in 5 young people are currently unemployed and even for those “lucky” enough to be in work, it’s grim. Age-wage discrimination is a policy encouraged by successive governments to allow employers to exploit young people. The argument for a different minimum wage seems to come down to “they have less experience.” This may be true at the top of specialised industries but who exactly is getting the minimum wage to be barrister or a quantity surveyor? The deskilled, casualised jobs where minimum wage is paid are often designed to require little experience (or more likely there is little investment in training to make clear you’re expendable). In moderately paid jobs discrimination is also rife. Young people find themselves being paid less to do the same work – often with less security and less perks – than those even 10 years older. Many workplaces now have every single employee on a contract unique to the exact time they joined – always with decreasing terms and conditions as you work your way down the generations. There are no unions in most of these workplaces either, meaning young people have little or no representation.
Housing is another sore point. Something else which used to exist which simply isn’t there anymore. The average age at which people move out of their family home is rising. The Westminster government’s attack on housing benefit singles outbrutal treatment. Removing housing benefit completely for those under a certain age will force thousands of young citizens into destitution. Worse still, many who have fled violence or abuse at home may have no choice but to go back. The wilful destruction of social housing is one of the most blatant drivers of intergenerational inequality. By buying into the Tories dream of home ownership, the baby boomers landed themselves a one off windfall that will be felt by every generation thereafter. And yet it’s young people who are called “selfish.”
Which leads neatly to a much broader point. It’s not just economic war; there is also a social and cultural assault against young people taking place in Britain. The narrative of our society will always be set by middle-aged, middle class people if we allow it to be. They control what’s in the papers, on the telly, whose opinion matters, what kind of music the kids are supposedly into. Their hatred of young people, especially working class ones, runs deep. The idea that young people are all criminals on drugs who’ve got no respect has constant potency in political situations despite being clearly false on all levels. Despite all the doom and gloom teenagers now are less likely to commit the kind of crimes my parents recount. They are also less likely to abuse drugs than was the case “back in my day.” I think frankly, they’ve got better values than their parents as well. Social attitudes (what I would call “respect”) towards people who’re different is a youthful trait in our society. So why are we letting politicians, the media and the British state demonise and attack young people?
Truthfully, we need to look at ourselves as well. We can talk about opposing “cuts” but what does that mean to someone leaving school now? They don’t see things being cut back, they see a barren wasteland. This isn’t about people losing perks, it’s about total hopelessness. Hoping the unions will save you or talking about a “general strike” isn’t going to cut it either. Again, urgency is something which seems to be lost in this. Unless union bosses Len McLuskey or Bob Crow are talking the mass of unemployed or underemployed young folk to the barricades right now we need to be much bolder. There is a fundamental difference between someone in their 50s losing 5% of their pension and a generation likely to die long before they will get to retire.
This isn’t about being divisive but it is about acknowledging the success with which we’ve been divided. If we don’t acknowledge the imbalances of power we can‘t challenge them. It’s not about telling people who do have jobs or who are in unions or who happen to have been born at a certain point in history that they are “the problem” – they aren’t. It’s about empowering those who are most disconnected from power to actively seek it. Right now, the only option left seems to be for young people to organise themselves independently to fight for and challenge political power.
Speaking of wanting to be independent, there is another great question looming. Another chance for our society to show what and who we are really for. Young people are uniquely positioned to look at where we are right now in Scotland.; to make a simple choice without much historical or tribal baggage. Uncertainly about the future is all we’ve given this generation. So unionists saying that what would happen in an independent Scotland is uncertain doesn’t scare them at all. There is a certainly in remaining in Britain for many of our young folk – no jobs, no houses, no future – but that’s not the kind of certainly that inspires them to say it’s “UK OK.”
There is an opportunity to start putting right this generational imbalance and show a bit of respect towards young people. With so many starting to see why independence could be an opportunity to make our society better, isn’t it time the oldies got onside? What would happen if we were denied an opportunity to put our energies into building a better nation? What would happen if we weren’t allowed out into the world in case we get hurt? What if our parents say no?
A no vote would deepen the growing chasm between the generations. Is our message to our young people that we have no respect for their hopes, their values and their future? It’s time for the grown ups to grow up and realise we need to empower everyone in our society to take what‘s theirs and be independent. Only those with the most to gain can get us where we need to go. If you really want things to be better for your children, listen to what they have to say for a change. We can’t afford to lose another generation to a rotten state. Now is the time for a generation failed by Britain to make something better for all of us. Youth needn’t be wasted on the young. We need to make it a powerful force in this debate, in our society and in our future nation.
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