While recent years have produced high levels of political turbulence and volatility in Britain, there has been a reasonably consistent trend: younger people are increasingly favoring bold economic change. With polling showing that 67% of 16-34 year olds would prefer a socialist economic model, so what is driving this desire for a fundamental shift in the existing order?
No issue has caused greater frustration among young people than housing. Ironically, part of the legacy of the “Right To Buy” policy (which saw homes which had previously been owned by local authorities sold off), the odds of young adults on an average income owning their own home in Britain have halved over the last two decades—leaving increasing numbers reliant on renting. Given that rent now takes up half the income of the average person paying it, it’s not hard to see why there has been a revival of tenant organizing in recent years—or why 78% of young people point the finger at capitalism for the country’s housing crisis.
In contrast to previous decades, where university courses were not only free, but were accompanied by grants to support students through their studies, the introduction of tuition fees (and various subsequent rises in them) have meant that the average graduate leaves higher education around £50,000 in debt. This leaves a significant burden to carry before even entering employment, adding to a sense of hopelessness felt by all too many young people. The university experience itself is an increasingly far cry from previous notions of a carefree period of excitement and new possibilities, with 64% believing it to have negatively impacted their wellbeing.
The state of pay
It has now been fifteen years since real wages increased in Britain, with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation finding that even prior to the current cost-of-living crisis, around a fifth of the population lived in poverty. When you consider this combined with huge hikes in prices and bills, it’s perhaps unsurprising that 2022 saw the highest number of strike days for more than three decades. Employment has also become increasingly casualized, including in sectors traditionally considered relatively lucrative—48% of universities and 60% of colleges now use zero hour contracts for their staff, for instance.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent warning that humanity had reached “code red” for the future of the planet illustrated the sense of urgency felt by those who have joined movements such as the climate strikes, but the issues linked to decarbonization also touches include policy areas such as transport—rail fares in Britain are now some of the highest in Europe. One particularly memorable case saw student Jordon Cox realizing that he could actually save money on a journey from Sheffield to Essex (around 230 miles) by taking a route that involved flying and stopping off in Berlin! The drastic rise in energy bills (electricity and gas prices went up by 65% and 129% respectively) has also popularized the demand for public ownership of major firms—with clear majorities in favor of nationalized utilities.
Of course, none of this is to say that sweeping change is somehow inevitable. Afterall, youth radicalism is hardly a new phenomenon. While “boomer” has become a lazy substitute for “conservative” in contemporary online discourse, it’s easy to forget just how many of that generation were in their teenage years during the huge youth-led movements in 1968, which shook the status quo throughout much of the Western world.
There is hardly a lack of precedent for many in a generation of young revolutionaries to ultimately make their peace with (or even actively embrace) the existing political and economic order. What the lack of prospects for a secure home, job, financial stability or even a habitable planet have created, however, is a situation where huge numbers simply see no prospect of gaining a stake in the system. However that ends up expressing itself politically, it is past time for policy answers that address the scale of the problems.