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INTERGENERATIONAL REGRESSION: Young People Really Deserve to be Given a Break

Older generations need to recognise the massive sacrifices being made by their children, argues Alex Andreou

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson speaks to staff and pupils at Beauchamp College, Leicester. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Archive/PA Images

INTERGENERATIONAL REGRESSIONYoung People Really Deserve to be Given a Break

Older generations need to show some humility and recognise the massive sacrifices being made by their children, argues Alex Andreou

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When the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a change of policy in Scotland, doing away with an algorithm that downgraded predicted exam results so that they corresponded with previous years – something that penalises poorer students – she added that she was determined not to do “what politicians sometimes do and dig our heels in”.

Cue Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education and (it seems) Heel-Digging. 

Even as the Government moved frantically to tinker with the rules, 24 hours before ‘A’ level results were set to be released, Williamson announced that there would be no such U-turn in England. As is irritatingly common, he announced this in an article behind the Telegraph‘s paywall. What better way for this “people’s Government” to communicate policy?

There is a culture war ethos underlying the idea that predicted grades must be adjusted down, of course. It is no secret that the Boris Johnson administration reckons that the teaching profession is crawling with soft leftie liberals whose instinct will be to be err on the side of kindness – as if kindness is the worst possible quality in an educator.

Why shouldn’t teachers be kind? Young people have been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been locked in their homes for months; their educational framework has disappeared; their network of friends socially distanced; their mental health has suffered; their career prospects have taken the worst possible hit, according to the Resolution Foundation.

The younger have leaned on the older for their wisdom and advice, while the older have relied on the younger for their technical expertise.

Brexit has been another development imposed on their generation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts that those now starting out in the labour market will suffer the deepest economic scarring. In fresh polling commissioned by Best for Britain, 48% of the 18-to-24 year olds surveyed said that leaving the Single Market and Customs Union will make it harder to get a job. Only 3% thought it would improve their chances.

Added to all this, young people have to watch those in positions of power – the very creators of the lockdown – behave as if the rules don’t apply to them, and then be condemned for the irresponsibility of taking to the streets to protest against institutional racism.

The brunt of Britain’s 10 years of austerity has been borne by children and young people. They have seen their earnings, career prospects and chances of home ownership take a dive, all while suffering the indignity of a generation that got everything for free introducing university tuition fees. Taken advantage of, and paid habitually below minimum wage, this is the reality of life for most young people today.

So what if this traumatic year ends for some of them with exam results that are 10% better than in previous years? Why not err on the side of kindness? Why not nudge this one thing in their favour? 

Progress Stalled

Intergenerational progress: a sort of species-wide “leave the place tidier than you found it” etiquette. It is a simple notion that we can, and want to, make life better for our kids’ generation.

My parents were guided, in almost everything they did, by this idea. They saw it as a duty and this was true for much of that generation, emerging from World War Two.

But intergenerational progress no longer feels like a given. If anything, there is a precipitous regression. The evidence supports this unequivocally. Living standards have stagnated, if not gone into reverse. 

Chipper historians regularly pop up and explain that, actually, if one were to look at key indicators over a longer period – say, a few centuries – the young are doing extremely well. Is that what I should tell my niece, whose opportunities are markedly more limited than those I enjoyed when I was her age? “I know you haven’t got the faintest chance of ever owning a home, darling, but at least we eradicated smallpox?” 

Older generations hold all the levers of power, but that cannot continue. The young cannot be excluded from the existential issues they will have to face. Bequeathed a ruined environment and closed borders they wish to keep open, a revolt of the young seems almost inevitable.

Their frustration cannot be ignored only until it turns to anger – especially given that 41% of the planet’s population is under 24. Such a giant demographic cannot be turned into a generational separatist movement. Indeed, we all rely on them.

Statistically, young people are much less vulnerable to COVID-19. So, if the time comes – and it may well come – to ask everyone to lockdown again, the Government needs to have developed empathy for the sacrifices of the young and a way of communicating with them.

One cause for optimism is that, Government aside, people from different generations are communicating more.

Research has found some small silver linings. The younger have leaned on the older for their wisdom and advice, while the older have relied on the younger for their technical expertise. There is a greater dialogue than in many decades previously.

This must be used to communicate understanding and empathy for the sacrifices of young people: that they are being asked to lockdown in worse accommodation than their elders, with half the space and little access to a garden. The youthful frustration Bukowski described as having “the desire and the need to live but not the ability” must be understood.

Collectively, older people need to have the humility to admit that young people are being asked to absorb this damage, to fundamentally change their ways of living – primarily for their benefit. Or the youngsters might just reply: “no”.

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