Of the many myths filling the airwaves during this pandemic, one of the most irritating is the idea that ‘Covid doesn’t discriminate’. While a virus can’t choose to do much of anything, just like supposedly impartial AI facial identification discriminating against those with darker skin, this ‘great equaliser’ exacerbates the underlying inequalities that run deep throughout the structures of our society.
It’s no coincidence that those from Black and Asian ethnic groups have been found to be twice as likely to die from the pandemic than their white counterparts, or that those from the most deprived parts of the UK died at a rate of 55.1 per 100,000 people, compared to the 25.3 per 100,000 in the wealthiest areas.
One of the less-discussed inequalities borne out of this pandemic, however, is age. Taj Ali has already written about how the 693,000 jobs lost during the pandemic have disproportionately hit younger generations. While the number of young people claiming unemployment benefits rose by 124 percent over 2020, the government’s Kickstart Scheme has so far created fewer than 2,000 new roles.
But it goes much further. Research has found under-25s are twice as likely as under-45s to have been furloughed. Less jobs are available for young people as the number of graduate jobs have fallen by 60 percent. The youngest generation is even bearing the brunt of the mental health crisis, according to one study from the University of Manchester. That’s all leaving aside how the long-term effects of Covid, from stagnating growth and rising unemployment to the long shadow of potential Tory austerity, will hit the youngest.
Then there’s renting. When a renter loses their income (as so many have during the pandemic), unlike someone who owns their house, they are at risk of losing the roof over their head. As of January, one in four renters have been threatened with eviction or contract cancellation by their landlord, and the problem will only worsen when the government’s ban on evictions is lifted in May. Unsurprisingly, the majority of renters are people under 35, who are roughly 50 percent more likely to be renters than their older counterparts.
On pretty much every social and economic measure, the pandemic has been devastating for young people. But this is just the acute end of a crisis that has been building for years.
Normally when you hear about the generational divide, it’s in tabloid hit pieces about avocado toast or ‘woke’ crusaders. Alternatively, it’s a millennial preaching about how they actually had no problems buying a house thanks to grit, hard work, and a five-figure loan from mum and dad.
Through most of this runs the idea that the age divide is entirely based on differing values – another front in the seemingly unending culture war. By doing so, it tends to normalise the current divide; pretty much every generation, from mods and rockers in the ’60s to ’90s ravers, has culturally rebelled against its predecessor. But the truth is that today’s age divide is a class issue. The youngest generation has never been poorer, more debt-ridden, or more precariously employed than they are right now.
The statistics are stark. Those under 40 have seen some of the worst income stagnation since world war II as the incomes of younger workers have fallen by as much as 10 percent in real terms since the 2008 financial crash. The young are far more likely to have low-paid work and increasingly face worse pension opportunities. Under-35s have thousands of pounds of more household debt than the UK average as a result of rising student, housing, and personal debt (not to mention buy-now-pay-later sites like Klarna).
Then there’s the point everyone talks about: housing. 90.4 percent of homes are owned by those aged over 35, while 40 percent of young adults are too poor to afford the deposit on the cheapest houses in their area. While more old people tend to own homes by virtue of the fact that they have had more time to save, the divide has been been growing starker each year. Since 1991, the number of under-35s owning a home has roughly halved – and that was as of 2014.
At this point, you could talk about Marx’s theory of surplus value or fictitious capital, but on an everyday level, owning a house offers stability and security. Meanwhile, being young in our society is defined by uncertainty. Not just uncertainty at a future blighted by climate change, automation and skyrocketing inequality, but in our jobs too –under-35s are twice as likely to work in the gig economy than the UK average.
None of this is an accident: it’s the result of decades of policy choices. Under Thatcher, Right To Buy followed by a collapse in house building gave one generation a boost in home ownership literally at the expense of the next one. Under successive governments since, capital gains tax has been cut, making everything from owning investment properties to stocks and shares all the more valuable. The refusal to implement a Land Value Tax, or even update council tax information that is now 30 years out of date to reflect the current value of properties, serves solely to subsidise old homeowners.
Decades of austerity disproportionately hit younger people too – both directly, through cuts to schooling, youth centres, and university grants, and indirectly, as reduced support, stagnating pay, and worse services all have more impact on those just entering the economy. And that’s only scratching the surface.
Day by day, the UK becomes more of a ‘gerontocracy’ – a society run by and for the benefit of old people. In some ways it’s not surprising. The elderly drag themselves to the ballot box each year at far higher rates than millennials and Gen Z. Appeasing that voter base can help win elections in the short-term, even if it’s directly hurting the next generation.
Is it any wonder, then, that young people are pushing for radical change? Pollsters call age the ‘new dividing line of British politics’, as the 2017 and 2019 general elections marked the biggest generational split in decades. Normally, age tends to follow whichever party wins the most votes, but despite losing in 2019 Labour picked up over 50 percent of the votes for those under 30, compared to just above 20 percent voting Tory. Even Margaret Thatcher won a majority of young voters at the ballot box. It’s no coincidence that in 2017 and 2019, Labour, the party offering the radical solutions to today’s socio-economic woes, received more support from those on the acute end of those problems.
Maybe a swell of young voters at the ballot box could mean change is on the horizon. Or maybe an economy and society stacked against young people—and so many others—will only get worse. The outcome of this problem is far from certain: people like to say that the young are the future of our society, but for us, that future is growing harder and harder to see.