Monday 4 May 2015

Generation Y has never had it so good

‘Generation Y will be the first generation to be worse off than their parents’ is a prediction that has been made by numerous commentators, in the UK and across the developed world – most recently by Leanne Wood in the recent UK party leaders debate. Such dramatic pronouncements make for good headlines and buy into the general sense of pessimism that has gripped the western world in the wake of the Great Recession. The pundits and politicians are riding this tide more than shaping it – they want to be seen as the solution (‘vote for me’). And therefore they come armed with statistics and charts, talking about home ownership, protected pensioner benefits and the ever elusive 'job for life'. They argue that generation Y (those born between 1980 and 2000) is to be pitied - they will never own homes, will have to work until they keel over (that is if they ever get jobs) and will have to compete for everything from school places for their children to hospital beds with endless hordes of immigrants.

I seek to make a different case – that Generation Y has never had it so good. Yes, house prices have risen dramatically this century; yes, pensioner incomes have been rising whilst the numbers have stagnated for other groups; and yes, youth unemployment has increased. But despite all of this we are the luckiest generation yet – a fact that is often lost in the mire of figures. I have two main points: firstly, that the pundits’ statistics prove very little because they rarely focus on what I believe is the most important metric – quality of life. Secondly, there have been other improvements in certain aspects of private life in recent decades that can’t be quantified, but which make Generation Y – which has the youth and vision to exploit these advancements – immeasurably better off than preceding generations.

Firstly, I believe that statistics comparing the portion of national income held by different age groups are unhelpful because they are metrics measuring our relative share of wealth, not our quality of life. Generation Y might have a smaller piece of it, but the figurative pie is much bigger. One popular tactic is to compare discrete aspects of life today with, say, the 1960s – such as home ownership amongst people under 30. Unfortunately dramatic overall improvements in the quality of life make such comparisons unhelpful. For example, my dad, growing up in 1960s Derby, had an outdoor toilet, no washing machine and a basic refrigerator. Generation Y might have to rent more, but life is clearly better overall. There are a variety of appliances that make household life easier. We like to tell ourselves otherwise, but we have far more leisure time than ever before – mainly because cooking, cleaning, ironing, paying our bills and even household shopping (now done online) take far less time. There have also been vast improvements in the choice, relative price and quality of consumer goods. Smaller comparative real wages, compared to the 60s or 70s, don’t factor in the extent to which the relative price (how much something costs as a percentage of income) and range of goods has improved. We can buy an immeasurably bigger and better basket of goods with our paychecks. Did they have Cadburys filled with Turkish delight in the 1960s? No! Chocolate was a luxury and cost a bigger part of peoples’ disposable income. The efficient operation of the market has also made many of the other luxuries of yesterday almost universally available. Think of travel – flights to certain destinations abroad are now cheaper than a train ticket from London to Manchester. The explosion of destinations globally, married with the ever-strong pound, has driven relative prices down dramatically.

Secondly, there have been continuous – indeed exponential – improvements in the quality and accessibility of information technology in the 21st century. Generation X (those born between1960 and1980) arguably has benefited from this, but they’re the followers whilst we are the shapers. This is partly because Generation Y doesn’t know an alternative to hyper-connectivity because it’s always been there. That is a powerful thing – taking something for granted makes it a right not a privilege. We are constantly redefining not just human interaction, but methods of consumption, medical diagnosis and leisure. Various surveys put mobile phone ownership among young adults well above 80%, the vast majority of which are smartphones. Hand-held devices are here to stay – you’d probably have more luck separating a Texan from their gun than the average teenager from their smartphone. 

None of this is to say that successive governments are justified in screwing young people in order to bribe grey voters. That pensions are being uprated in the UK by the highest measure of inflation and the winter fuel allowance is universal are flagrant breaches of the social contract. However, this is a structural flaw in our democracy, not a constraint of our age, which is as much the fault of those young people who fail to vote as it is of the politicians.

Generation Y is navigating a brave new world where knowledge is at the end of our fingertips, where we are redefining human interaction at a startling pace – it’s a privilege to be a part of it. The impact of technology on government is, as ever, dramatically behind the private sector – but recent technological advancements will allow us to completely re-invent society and the way it is governed. There are challenges ahead and we have work to do, but for Generation Y the sky is truly the limit.

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