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When All Else Fails, Blame the Youth

Young people are facing the worst of the pandemic's long-term fallout – but rather than offer them help, the government has spent the last year using them as a scapegoat for its own repeated failures.

At the end of April, the government released a new advert urging under-50s to go and get their Covid-19 vaccinations. Those depicted vary in age, but some look young enough to be in their early twenties. What the advert failed to mention was that most of us in that demographic aren’t yet eligible for the jab, no matter how badly we want it.

It’s true that when categorised by age, young people are the most likely to report vaccine hesitancy. A more effective advert, then, would surely attempt to address and alleviate their concerns, particularly in light of the recent changes to AstraZeneca provision for under-30s. Instead, the government has chosen to imply that young people are dragging their heels on the way to the vaccine clinic—perhaps because of a sense of our own immortality—and that it’s that slowing the country’s progression out of lockdown.

Most frustrating is the fact that many young people would jump at the chance to get the needle in their arm – but on current track, it’ll be the end of July by the time all over-18s have had the jab, barring exceptions for those with asthma or other medical conditions. So why are we being called upon to accept something we can’t access?

The answer is that young people have been consistently scapegoated for Britain’s catastrophic experience of Covid.

Last summer, Rishi Sunak introduced dramatic discounts for pubs and restaurants as part of his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, actively encouraging people to go out and meet each other. Researchers found that some participating venues saw traffic increases of 200 percent compared to 2019, predictably ‘accelerating the pandemic’ into its second wave by driving up infection rates by 8-17 percent.

However, at the beginning of September, Matt Hancock tried to blame that second wave entirely on young people, who he alleged were flouting lockdown rules with the potential to ‘kill your gran’.

Hancock also described the impending return of university students that autumn as a ‘concern’, though evidently not one pressing enough to warrant actually closing down campuses. Instead, students were charged full rent to move into halls that they had been promised were safe, only to experience mass outbreaks of Covid within a number of weeks.

Many then had to self-isolate in their rooms – or, for 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University, to discover that their entire building had been locked down for 14 days. Students who had moved to new or completely alien cities were cut off from friends and family, and told that the rising case numbers were their fault; the impact on their mental health was devastating.

The grim irony of this blame game is that young people have actually been disproportionately affected by the pandemic – not in terms of health, but in terms of what looks set to be a long-lasting economic shockwave. The number of 18-24-year-olds claiming unemployment benefits grew by 110 percent within a year, while under-25s are twice as likely to have been furloughed as those under 45. Apprenticeships have also faced training budget cuts, with numerous firms suspending programmes altogether. Even those with work aren’t immune: researchers have predicted that their wages could suffer for another several years beyond the pandemic.

This has all created widespread financial insecurity for a generation which already existed in a state of rising precarity. Young people are most likely to be renters, so their housing has been put at risk. Many have high levels of debt: for those leaving university, it’s three times the level of pre-2012 cohorts – and graduate jobs have shrunk by 60 percent.

The post-pandemic world ahead of young people looks bleak, if not actively hostile. It’s a world of mounting debt, extortionate housing, and disappearing career opportunities, on top of a climate crisis with the potential to spread even more deadly diseases in the future. Just as millennials were mocked for buying too many avocados and causing their own economic problems, Gen Z are being blamed for prolonging the pandemic that’s causing ours.

The government is desperate to deflect blame because its own record throughout the crisis gets worse the longer you look. Lockdowns were introduced too late and lifted too early. Money for PPE was wasted on contracts handed to friends. Money for a test-and-trace system was thrown at ineffective private providers. Sick pay remains too low to encourage effective self-isolation.

Most young people have been obeying government guidelines, to the detriment of our social lives and mental health, for 13 months now – but the Tories aren’t worried about reality. What they are worried about is power, and with an older base happy to shore up their majority and disillusioned young people abandoning an ineffective Labour Party at speed, the decision to double down here makes sense: when the kind of radical political vision needed to mobilise powerless young people is absent from British politics, it’s open season.

But that doesn’t make it right. In the case of both Covid and the wider state of the country, vilifying an entire generation won’t erase the government’s own failings from the historical record. More importantly, it won’t bring the dead back to life.