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Expectation vs Reality: The Hard Hand Dealt Young People in 2023

We could be working 15-hour weeks, enjoying our free time, and living like people of the future. Matt Gallagher asks: Why aren’t we?

Photo: Roth Melinda

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In the 1930s, the esteemed British economist John Maynard Keynes was confident that young people in the 21st century would inherit a new age of prosperity and leisure. The disconnect between his vision for the future and the bleak reality for young people in 2023 showcases the flaws in a centuries-old economic mythology. 

Those unfamiliar with Keynes and his economic theories will still recognise it. The myth, in its simplest form, goes like this: work hard, get educated, be frugal, and you will be rewarded. Keynes’ argument was essentially a scaled-up version of that same sentiment. Society, he argued, would be rewarded with utopia, if only we put our noses to the grindstone. For Keynes and so many others, more productivity automatically meant better living standards.

The hard work of the older generations was supposed to create a post-scarcity world for Keynes’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren. While he obviously didn’t use terms like Gen Z (born roughly 1996-2010), or Millennials (1981-1995) these are the first generations who were predicted to work just 15 hours a week and enjoy material abundance beyond the wildest imaginations of his time. The 21st century was meant to be an idyllic world free from stress, burn-out, or poverty – one where raw economic power translated directly into well-being and leisure. 

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So how did one of the most influential 20th-century economists get it all so profoundly wrong? As predicted, overall productivity and technological power have greatly increased over the last century. Keynes would be flabbergasted if you gave him a tour of a modern factory, and would probably faint from excitement at a glimpse of the internet. 

And yet, ask any young person today if we’ve achieved the pinnacle of human well-being. They’ll laugh in your face. As someone born on the borderline between Millennial and Gen-Z, many of my peers are stressed, depressed, indebted, and alienated. The problem is not a lack of productivity – it’s where all that economic value actually went after it was created. The promise of a reward for hard work has been broken, leaving only an uncertain future with little light at the end of the tunnel. Instead of an age of abundance, we live in an age of insecurity. 


Age of Insecurity: Employment, Debt, and the Cost of Living:

The young today work more than ever and receive even less in return. The average full-time employee in the UK worked nearly 37 hours a week in the first quarter of 2023. Those aged 18-24 are the most likely to put in unpaid overtime, contributing an average of eight hours and thirty minutes of “free work” per week, significantly more than all of their older counterparts. The trend seems to be more work, not less.

They’re also not being compensated in the way Keynes might have anticipated. Nearly two decades of lost wage growth is leaving the youngest financially vulnerable, consistently losing out to inflation instead of growing more prosperous. Making matters worse, young people are spending nearly twice the national average on necessities like rent, bills, and the work commute – no, not frivolous avocado toast or iPhones. 

More profoundly, all this work is not just underpaid – it’s unfulfilling. In 2020, 38% of British 18-24 year olds said their job lacked meaning. In his 2013 article-turned-book Bulls**t Jobs, the late anthropologist David Graeber argued that technological innovation could have easily created a 15-hour work week. Instead, he posits, technology has just been “marshalled to figure out ways to make us all work more”. The result is often unfulfilling employment which workers, especially the young, can find “psychologically exhausting”. 

The rise in material abundance just hasn’t materialised – in fact, it’s the opposite. Young people in the UK rely more on debt than any of the older generations. In December 2022, more than half (51%) of 18-24 year olds had taken on additional debt in the past year, or expected to do so over the next. That’s compared to just 7% of 66-75 year olds. There is a clear generational divide when it comes to debt, and it’s having a myriad of negative impacts from public health to consumer spending. 

It’s particularly bad for students. Between 2022-2023, £4.8 billion was added to UK student debt in interest alone. Students incur debt in order to pursue an education which will further their career prospects, then find themselves trapped by the interest – often necessitating more loans just to keep afloat. 

The reality, then, is that young people today are more burnt out and less compensated than ever before. According to research from the Mental Health Foundation, 60% of 18-24 year olds “have felt so stressed by the pressure to succeed that they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope.” 

Systemic Failure and Crushing Dissent:  

So why does this massive gap exist between the expectations of leading experts about capitalism’s future, and the reality that exists today? For one thing, Keynes may have taken certain structural factors for granted – assuming that the playing field will remain level, and that the economy operates based purely on meritocracy. 

Over time, the institutions and support networks that used to bolster young people’s ability to enter the workforce and kick off their careers have withered away. The introduction of university tuition fees, the privatisation of energy, water, mail, and rail, and the shrinking of the social safety net in recent years have all contributed to creating a more expensive society for young people with less protections for those who struggle. 

As a country, we fail to legislate properly on key issues like housing. Young people are not making it onto the housing ladder, and find themselves trapped in the exploitative private rental sector – which is not subject to regulations that protect renters. According to homelessness charity Shelter, the amount that young families spend on housing has increased three-fold over the past fifty years. 

Even in social housing, problems abound. A recent Byline Times investigation showed that the biggest social housing providers in the UK are raking in billions of pounds in surpluses, while tenants report unsafe living conditions, including deadly mould. The result is that very few safe options remain for Britain’s vulnerable younger generations to put a roof over their heads. 

More fundamentally, Britain is failing to invest in young people’s futures, adding to a sense of hopelessness about economic prospects ever improving. The decision to leave the EU in 2016 – as well as how Boris Johnson’s government decided to go about it – permanently changed the trajectory of young people’s lives. Roughly three quarters of 18-24 year olds voted to remain in the EU in 2016, but have nonetheless found themselves living in a more insular Britain, losing their freedom of movement and the economic security of the single market. 

Britain’s post-Brexit economic strategy seems to revolve almost solely around backroom deals and one-off agreements instead of systemic long-term planning. Seven years on from the referendum, Britain is still stuck in the political quagmires of the Brexit debate and entangled in the self-serving corruption of right-wing populism. Since the dissolution of Labour’s radical reform movement under Jeremy Corbyn – which drove a huge spike in youth turnout in 2019 and received 60% of the vote among 18-24 year olds – no new counter-narrative has emerged to captivate Britain’s youth.

The biggest systemic failure will likely prove to be Britain’s failure to act on climate change. In February 2023, a YouGov poll showed that only 9% of 16-24 year olds felt they had a great deal of influence over the decision-making process on climate issues – despite the fact that they would be the ones most affected later in life. Instead of seeing meaningful action on their behalf, young people are left to sit back and watch as the fossil fuel lobby continues to exert more influence over their futures than they could ever imagine. 

Instead of engaging in any kind of dialogue with frustrated Millennials and Gen Zers over privatisation, housing, Brexit or climate change, recent governments have simply opted to crush dissent. Among other legislation, the Policing and Public Order Acts, the Elections Act, and the Judicial Review Act were all part of a policy package designed to limit the extent to which ordinary people – and especially the young – could voice opposition to government policy. They’re relegated to the backseat of a car steadily driving them off a cliff. 

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Where Next? Options on the Table: 

To raise the point of Keynes’ misguided vision is not to complain or act as though young people are owed anything more than their ancestors received. It’s to ask a fundamental question about the nature of our economy, about what our actual goals are. We’ve strayed so far from the original intentions of our economic model that we now seem to have no tangible objectives in sight. Moving forward, young people have limited options – and none of them are easy.

The first option is to suck it up and continue on the beaten path. Those of us who are lucky can use family connections or an expensive education (or both) to find high-earning jobs in finance or tech. Those truly lucky will actually find those jobs emotionally fulfilling. The rest of the young cohort will be left grinding minimum wage jobs and going into debt to make ends meet, never fully setting up a future and facing barriers to starting a family. That certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of Britain.

The second option is to get out. A lot of the younger generation now want to simply leave the UK and find somewhere to actually build a prosperous life. Unfortunately, the loss of EU freedom of movement makes that increasingly difficult. Those in power should want to avoid this outcome at all costs, because it would leave them in charge of an ageing nation entering a death-spiral of economic decline. That fact gives the young unprecedented leverage, which has so far gone unrealised. 

That brings us to the third option – the most difficult by far – which is to get politically organised in a way that those in charge can’t continue to ignore. Demographics are on the side of the young, with more eligible voters coming of age every single day. More youth political movements are firing up constantly around the cost of living, climate change, housing, racial equality, and more. The tricky part is uniting those disparate movements into a broader call for action, a New Deal for young people not dissimilar to the one of Keynes’ time, following the Great Depression in the United States. 

What would such a proposal look like?

A high-paying Public Jobs Guarantee would create an “employer of last resort”, putting pressure on the private sector to pay more and allow for more flexible working hours. Infrastructure projects around the country could assuage regional inequalities and build a Britain truly fit for the 21st century. An expansion of the social safety net, regulation in key sectors like housing, a broader climate action plan, and renewed calls for the nationalisation of key industries could all feature. It would need to be an act of democratic deliberation, and the case would need to be made well to the older generations that the status quo isn’t good for anyone. Ideally, it would be a new movement with a new face, not just a re-litigation of past intergenerational political battles like Brexit or Corbynism.  

Most importantly, we as young people need to push for a political system where we can actually get involved. The revolving door of recent governments has showcased a fundamentally broken democracy, where dissent is crushed and meaningful dialogue is near non-existent. We could build new forums of discussion, champion causes like press reform, devolution, proportional representation, and repeal of the draconian legislation enacted in the past few years. We could create a system where government policy reflects how we actually feel. 

It’s not too late for Keynes’ vision to be realised. As the ones bearing the weight of a failing system, young people are poised politically to be the ones to bring it about. We could be working 15-hour weeks, enjoying our free time, and living like people of the future. The sobering reality is that no victory like that was ever achieved without people fighting tooth and nail for it. 


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