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Britain’s Young People Toil Under Broken System

What are the economic prospects for millennials and Geneation Z-ers in the UK?

Natasha Drake

March 3, 2018
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Getty Image from The Independent UK

It seems there is rarely a day here in the UK where the social issues facing millennials and Generation Z-ers (that is, everyone born after 1981) aren’t hitting headlines. But quite how bad is the situation?

The answer is: surprisingly bad. While economic forecasts are generally pessimistic for young people across the developed world, a recent study by the Resolution Foundation suggests that British youth have been hit harder than their foreign counterparts. For example, Brits born around 1980 earn approximately 13% less than those ten years older at the same stage of life. This drop is the second-highest in the developed world, surpassed only by Greece at 25%. The study also found that the pay squeeze between Brits in their thirties and Brits in their fifties was larger than in any other nation.

This feeling – that the younger generation is, counter-intuitively, experiencing or is set to experience a worse quality of life than their elders – is a common one in the UK, and with Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May currently ordering a review into tuition fees, the spotlight of this issue has turned to higher education and its exorbitant costs, a depressing problem that plagues many British youth. Currently, a university education in England or Wales (Scotland has free tuition for its students, courtesy of its devolved parliament) costs £9,250 a year – roughly 12,950 American dollars. Multiply this by three for a general three-year degree, and you have a cost of £27,750. And that’s without the stupidly high 6.1% interest rate for paying back student loans to the government. Then add in accommodation costs, living costs, etc., and you have a higher education system which seriously tests the budget of the average school leaver.

And no, this isn’t a pan-European problem. French students pay, on average, the equivalent of £326 per year for their university tuition, and the Belgians, Germans, Italians and Austrians all get theirs for less than £1,000 a year. England really is the outlier here, with fees that are the highest in the entire world, shackling an entire unlucky generation with the weight of student debt – an average of over £50,000 upon graduation.

The £9,250 fee was set to rise with inflation, which would have seen it soaring over £10,000 this year, but the review has capped it at its current level for the foreseeable future. However, given that the review is being orchestrated by the same party which, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, tripled tuition fees back in 2010, hopes are not high that it will make any real impact. The review seems more like a last-ditch tactic to win back young voters from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, which pledges to abolish tuition fees altogether, than a genuine attempt to fix the broken system.

But the extortionate costs of higher education and the student debt that hangs over graduates for decades are not the only crises facing Britain’s youth. Housing is also an enormous worry: 44% of students in the UK struggle to keep up with rent costs, and 45% said that their mental health suffered as a result, according to a Save The Student survey. But once students graduate from university or college, the situation doesn’t seem much brighter. The number of renters – as opposed to homeowners – in Britain has more than doubled since 2001, with home ownership plummeting among the 25-34 age group. Some are even calling this current crop of young people, priced out of the housing market with dying hopes of ever getting on the property ladder, ‘Generation Rent’.

39% of UK adults, and 49% in London, can’t afford to actually buy the kind of property they live in, forcing them to rent instead. In some countries, this would not be seen as much of a problem. Germany, for example, has good protection for renters: tenants can stay indefinitely and can only be evicted for breaking the law. Other countries, including Belgium, Italy, and our neighbour Ireland, give tenants between three and ten years of protection from eviction. However, in England and Wales, tenants are protected from eviction for no reason for a fixed time period, the minimum being a meagre six months. After this, tenants can be evicted with only two months’ notice for no reason. Tenants in England and Wales also have far less protection from unaffordable rent rises than their counterparts in many other European countries because, while landlords are banned from raising rents during a tenancy agreement, long tenancies are rare.

Compare this to the situation in Germany, for instance, where rents cannot go above local market levels and cannot go up by more than 15-20% over three years, or in several other wealthy European nations (including France, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Ireland), where rent increases are also capped. While short-term renting can offer flexibility and affordability to young people, in reality it is more likely to induce stress and anxiety, as their hopes of ever moving out of rented accommodation and getting on the property ladder dwindle, and they face the constant uncertainty and instability of renting for all of the foreseeable future.

Employment is another big issue for Britain’s young people. 78% of 18 to 21-year-olds now work for less than the living wage recommended by the government. The biggest culprit of this is the gig economy – a sector based around short-term, often zero-hours, contracts with few protections for its employees – in which 34% of the employees are aged 16-30. Shockingly, considering the often unskilled character of gig economy work, 44% of gig economy workers have university degrees. This means that there are thousands, if not millions, of young people in the UK graduating from university – with the burden of immense student debt – not doing worthwhile, skilled, fulfilling jobs that utilise their abilities, but low-paid, precarious, unpredictable, exploitative jobs.
And the gig economy is exploitative, despite its proponents celebrating its ‘flexibility’ and ‘accessibility’. Its workers are classed as self-employed, which means they lack the statutory protections such as sick leave, holiday pay, or safety from unfair dismissal. These so-called self-employed workers also don’t get the advantages of genuine self-employment: being your own boss, setting your own hours etc. Instead, gig economy workers are working for companies, which deliberately exploit their labour in order to save money and increase profits.

But the gig economy isn’t the only problem facing young people looking for employment. Millennials in the UK are being called the first generation expected to work for free. The Unite union in Britain has ‘seen a massive increase in the use of unpaid trial shifts’, in which those applying for a job are asked to work a shift or two for no money in order to apparently demonstrate that they are worthy of the position. It is different from work experience, where someone generally shadows an employee, in that trial shifts expect applicants to perform all the tasks they would be required to do if they were actually employed at the company. This effectively means that companies have found an innovative new way to get labour-power without having to pay anything in return.
Unpaid internships and internships that interns are expected to pay to do also plague the UK’s youth. Young workers getting started in employment are increasingly being expected to either gain work experience without being paid, or, more insultingly, fork out in order to gain an experience placement. The Sutton Trust estimates that 40% of the 70,000 annual internships are unpaid. Of course, internships boost the skills and employability of young people, but skills and employability don’t pay the rent. The trust’s study estimates that ‘an intern wanting to fulfil a six-month internship … would need a budget of £6,114 in London for living costs. A counterpart in Manchester would require £4,965’. Given that interns who carry out valuable work are likely to be officially classed as ‘employees’ and therefore deserve at least the minimum wage, the majority of these current unpaid internships are actually illegal – but the employment law is not being enforced. The process through which internships are secured, often through word-of-mouth and informal connections, also prevents less privileged young people from getting a foot in the door of many top professions, where internships are frequently seen as a necessity before employment.

These three main areas – education, housing, and employment – combine to form a truly broken system in which increasing numbers of Britain’s millennials and Generation Z-ers are graduating from university with immense debt and going straight into the fragile, precarious, and stressful gig economy to fund themselves through unpaid internships just to stand a chance at landing a well-paid job, all while navigating the overpriced and often-inaccessible housing market. Gone are the days in which careers seemed safe and linear, when young people felt assured that if they started at the bottom, they had a fair chance of making it to ‘the top’; all of that has been replaced by a situation in which Britain’s youth feel increasingly exploited and hopeless.

With this much dissatisfaction among young people, it is hardly surprising that many are deserting the more entrenched ‘politics as usual’ ways of neoliberalism and are looking for radical alternatives. The main beneficiary of this swing away from traditional politics is Momentum, the unofficial faction of the Labour Party which backs the party leader Jeremy Corbyn (as opposed to other party factions such as Progress, the primary force within the party for New Labour and neoliberalism, and which can barely be called left-wing). Momentum’s growth is impressive – it now boasts a membership of 37,000, with over one and a half thousand new members per week. This means that it now has more members than the UK Independence Party or UKIP (the main pro-Brexit party in Britain, formerly led by Nigel Farage) and looks set to overtake the Green Party later this year.

On its website, Momentum claims to be ‘mobilising the mass campaigning movement that we need to get Labour into government’, and they are certainly taking the mass campaigning part of that statement seriously. Its 150 local groups focus on real grassroots strategies, engaging and re-engaging thousands of people about political action. It seems as if the established parties, especially the Conservatives, have forgotten (or perhaps never realised in the first place) how to genuinely connect with voters, especially the young who already feel disenfranchised and voiceless, like an abandoned segment of the electorate. In the digital age, Momentum’s campaigning tactics – a huge social media presence, producing viral videos, etc. – really aren’t all that radical or groundbreaking, and the movement’s success says more about the abject failure of establishment parties to engage or excite young voters than the magic of Facebook politics.

That’s not to say, however, that Momentum members are only part of the organisation because other groups have yet to take up their campaigning strategies. That’s a view peddled mainly by Conservative MPs who (again) fail to understand young voters and believe that Labour is ‘bribing’ them by, for example, promising to abolish tuition fees, and that Britain’s youth is so stupid and impressionable that a couple of well-produced campaign videos is enough to get them hooked. (Incidentally, it was this arrogant and patronising attitude that gave the world the Tory youth wing and general embarrassment ‘Activate’, which launched itself last year with a prehistoric Admiral Ackbar meme about Corbyn’s policies being ‘a trap’, as if that’s all it takes to interest young voters. It worked about as well as you’d expect.)

Britain’s youth is not being bribed or tricked into joining Momentum, or into supporting Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies only look ‘extreme left’ to someone for whom the Tories are the centre ground, or into getting involved in left-wing politics. To suggest that they are is to intensely disrespect young people by denying their political autonomy. These millennials and Gen-Z-ers are making positive decisions to reject the neoliberal consensus and seek out better ways of running society, because they experience first-hand every day the sharp end of unrestrained capitalism. Millions of people are fed up with economic uncertainty, falling living standards, and the danger of relying on a food bank if they miss a single paycheck. Corbyn and Momentum promise wealth redistribution, real democracy, and kicking big money out of politics, and these ideas, believe it or not, appeal to people – it’s really as simple as that. The growth of Momentum is only inexplicable or unexpected to those who have no idea at all of the daily struggles of millions of Brits, and when you realise quite how bad the situation has got for Britain’s young people – extortionate education costs, the depressing burden of student debt, the impossibility of getting on the housing ladder, the blatant exploitation of the gig economy, the insult of unpaid and paid-for internships and little to no expectation of enjoying the living standards of their parents – the motivations behind the surging support for Corbyn and Momentum are clear as day.

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