If risk is such a good thing, why is it all heaped on to the young and struggling?
The Tories have got a youth problem and they’re going to fix it with peri-peri chicken. Not how they’d put it, but you hardly need to be a marketing whiz to work out that their latest big idea to tempt in new members – a Nando’s discount card – isn’t aimed at octogenarians in the home counties.
It comes hot on the tracks of the government’s new millennial railcard, which offers a third off rail fares, presumably to distract 26- to 30-year-olds from the fact they’ll never be able to afford a house.
Someone in Conservative HQ has been swotting up on their millennial stereotypes. But they’d be better off reading the report of the Resolution Foundation’s intergenerational commission. It busts some of the popular millennial myths: no, they don’t waste all their cash eating avocado on toast in trendy brunch spots; no, they don’t spend more on their phones than older generations; no, there’s no evidence they relate differently to big-name brands. And, most seriously, they are not the flighty job-hoppers that stereotypes would have us believe.
The intergenerational gulf is often conceived of in hard cash. From housing, to pensions, to university education, young people are having to shell out more to approach the same standard of living as their parents and grandparents. This makes family background – whether you have parents who can help you out – more important than ever and means we’re creating a social mobility time bomb.
But the divide is not just about resources. As the Resolution Foundation points out, young people are being expected to take on more risk. The obvious example is pensions. Gone are the days when companies pledged to pay retired workers a guaranteed income for the rest of their lives; today’s workers must, instead, save into an individual pot that must last. If you’re unlucky enough to retire just after a stock market crash has slashed the value of your pension – tough.
It’s not just pensions. There are financial risks associated with homeownership, but young people who will spend most, or all, their lives renting are exposed to serious uncertainties: short-term tenancies, with the constant worry over whether this will be the year they and their kids end up needing to find somewhere else to live; and the risk of inflation-busting rent rises. It is young people who have been most exposed to the precarious slice of the labour market characterised by zero-hours contracts and low-paid self-employment, where companies have succeeded in shifting risk on to workers who can least afford to bear it.
Exposure to risk, in moderation, can be a good thing: the world would be a messed-up place if people experienced all the upsides but none of the downsides of their actions. But it can fast become debilitating. Living with the knowledge that there could be any number of events around the corner that could send you into a downward spiral – getting cancer, losing your job, being in a car accident – results in a life of constant worry. It leaves people unable think about taking potentially life-changing productive risks, such as switching jobs, investing in a training course or dumping the life partner who’s making their life miserable.
That’s why we as a society have developed collective approaches to dealing with bad risks, such as the NHS. Were he alive today, Nye Bevan would be scratching his head at our reluctance to contemplate a collective solution for older care, one of the biggest social challenges of our age. We don’t force someone with cancer to pay the huge costs of their care if they can afford it; why would we do so for someone unlucky enough to get dementia? The wealthy should pay more – but surely that should be everyone who can afford to put in, rather than just those who get the disease?
It’ll be a while before we know the long-term consequences of forcing individuals to bear more risk. But there are clues: back to the myth of the job-hopping millennials. Changing jobs is an important means of securing promotion and boosting earnings. Yet the Resolution Foundation highlights that millennials are significantly less likely to move jobs voluntarily than generation X at the same point in their careers. It points to the higher levels of risk they face as one of the culprits. The effects will be worst for young people who can’t rely on a cushion of parental support.
We’ve got exactly the reverse problem at the other end of the spectrum: there’s far too little personal risk associated with making terrible business decisions. No one illustrates this better than businessman-of-the-moment turned Sir Shifty, Philip Green.
We’re encouraged to heap praise on the wealth creators who have supposedly taken big but smart risks to generate jobs and growth. David Cameron even put Philip Green in charge of a review of government spending in 2010. But it’s all too easy for unscrupulous “entrepreneurs” to make vast sums through wealth extraction, rather than wealth generation. Green made hundreds of millions out of BHS, leaving thousands of people without jobs and depleted pensions. Nothing shows quite how little has changed since than the spectacular collapse of Carillion in January. There are many familiar elements: greedy directors paying themselves huge bonuses the company couldn’t afford, dodgy accounts presented to investors, just on a grander scale – BHS on steroids.
So it would be missing a trick just to think of inequality in terms of wealth: we need to ask hard questions about why young people are being expected to bear increasing amounts of individual risk while incredibly wealthy individuals can drive long-standing British companies to collapse and get off scot free. If the Conservatives really want to fix their youth problem, I might politely suggest this would make a better starting point than Portuguese chicken.