‘Do you remember when people used to retire?’ I can just imagine our generation’s grandkids asking us that in 50-odd years’ time. Our generation – the 1990s crew – will be working into our 70s. That means that a fair few of you reading this, given the vast inequalities in life expectancy in Britain, will be toiling flat-out and non-stop…till we drop.
The budget did nothing for students or graduates – nearly half of whom are in non-graduate roles, from shelf-stackers to baristas and receptionists. A tenth are unemployed. I’ve lost count of the numbers of old uni friends who’ve recently been on the dole. Where they have found work, many are whiling away their hours gaining ‘work experience’ or what anthropologist David Graeber politely termed ‘bullshit jobs’ – roles which serve no useful purpose. You’ll all know many more. The Autumn Statement announcement of a legislated welfare cap of 1% will push them further into the ground amid rising food costs and energy bills.
Neither will their woes – or just early world-weariness – be made any easier by announcement that the government plans to sell-off of the entire Student Loans Company, part of the coalition’s much-mooted £20bn (doubled from their previous aim) plan to flog-off a whole swathe of public assets – from Eurostar to potentially the Met Office, air traffic control and plenty more. It will make the forestry sell-off a couple of years ago look like a walk in the park. Pardon the pun.
What will it mean to us? Eventually, the terms of our loans will change. Where companies can no longer make a profit off our debt, they will seek to remove or lift the interest rate cap. And with that, we’ll have a de facto rise in tuition fees. Since the loans will be in private hands, we’ll have no say over the matter.
The implications are of course far deeper than this. If not even our student loans are publicly owned any more, our education system certainly won’t be either. Thus Higher Education becomes a commercial enterprise with barely a whisper of democratic discussion.
It’s not just privatisation that we have to contend with. The next few years will see £1bn worth of extra cuts year on year, further limiting demand in the economy and thus jobs growth. The dole queue won’t be going down any time soon. Nearly a million of our generation – five years after the crash – still remain stranded without work.
Already 300,000 public sector jobs have been slashed since the government came to power – on a pledge, cynically, to protect ‘front-line services’ – and the Institute for Fiscal studies reckons the another 900,000 job losses are yet to come by 2017/18. Brace yourselves.
The problem isn’t even lack of GDP growth – although there has been a lot less of it since 2010. The real issue, as Labour have belatedly tacked on to, is that wages are stagnating, with workers £5000 worse off since the crash. Labour shouldn’t take the credit however – wages were stagnating under them, too, with a minimum wage that wasn’t fit for purpose and zero hours contracts rearing their head even before 2008. And Ed Balls’ response to the Statement in the Commons was pretty pathetic, by most accounts.
Nonetheless, we’re still right to ask: recovery? What recovery? If there is one, who’s recovery is it? It certainly isn’t young people’s.
It’s not as if the pain of austerity is worth it even on its own terms – annual borrowing is £111bn, compared with the £60bn that Osborne said we’d get this year.
Thursday’s budget, in an era of leaks, was largely without surprises. But that’s the problem. We’ve grown used to austerity, becoming reluctant masochists. There are hopeful signs though that students are starting to fight back – this week has seen a wave of occupations sweep universities across the country, from Sheffield to Birmingham, Sussex to the University of London. Everywhere, of course, met with a heavy-handed response.
But hey, it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. I can sense that our generation – faced with the in-your-face affront we saw in the Autumn Statement – might not be pliant for much longer. Because it’s not just class war any longer, it’s age war too.