Review: Jilted Generation

Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth, by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik – paperback, out September 2nd, £8.99, 246pp

If you can’t buy a house or get a job you’re probably looking for someone to blame. This book could help you out – even if it won’t solve all your problems.

By Alex Stevenson

The ideas in Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth are far from new. Earlier this year David Willetts wrapped up his 13 years in opposition by publishing The Pinch, a drier but fascinating explanation of how the baby-boomer generation has grabbed too much of Britain’s wealth and isn’t giving any of it back. Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, two ’20-something journalists’ (just), go a little further. They blame the cult of individualism triggered by the 60s, venerated by Thatcher and pandered to by Blair, for the many facets of the gloom now facing Britain’s young. We are taken on a guided tour of wretchedness: an endless litany of ways in which the generation before took all they could without thinking of those who come after.

It’s a heady cocktail that deserves the intense writing Howker and Malik duly provide. Their purpose is to tie together a narrative of greed and victimisation that’s enough to make anyone’s blood boil. At times the writers become true polemicists. Attacking a business panel’s proposal to encourage loans to the young unemployed which will help finance unpaid internships, they spit: “What a shaming, condescending, ambition-crushing, contemptuous message that sends to a generation brought low by joblessness.” If there’s one thing the authors avoid it’s fence-sitting.

At times the oppressive agenda becomes a little wearing. “We’re told that we’re freeloaders,” they whine in the chapter on housing. Attacks on the target of their own persecution are thwarted by hyperbole, as in the section on inheritance. “Extortion, theft, evasion of contracts; it sounds like a rap sheet for Britain’s most wanted,” they seethe. Really?

At times the sensationalist approach goes too far, desperately straining to break up the graphs and tables and numbers with youthful bon mots. But at least it does the job, directly appealing to the generation which wears the headphones and trainers that adorn the book’s cover. The Rolling Stones are used to demonstrate the baby-boomers’ enduring cultural influences. Under-qualified landlords are described as having “fewer qualifications than guys who flip burgers in McDonald’s”. With excellent verve, young people’s poor relative incomes get the best description of all. “If the UK economy is the room,” Howker and Malik write, “this is the elephant defecation in the middle of it”. For a book which can’t resist quoting Thomas Jefferson, David Hume and Edmund Burke, this is going some. At least it makes a refreshing change from the greyer language used in the Commons chamber.

Ultimately, though, the youthful sheen doesn’t really matter. Who wants to read endless demographics stats, anyway? The arguments are well-constructed and clear; the points are (nearly) all valid. It’s the section on politics, outlining exactly how Thatcher, Blair et al sought to shape their popularity around the new individualism, which proves most revealing. Here there is genuine insight on offer, a compelling narrative that explains exactly how serial ministers’ focus on individuals as “self-interested and motive purely by money” has influenced our politics.

Yet there is an apparent contradiction here, a weakness in the argument. “In the era that champions individuals, the state has grown in size and strength and remit, even while those in power have criticised it for being too big,” Howker and Malik admit in the conclusion. “The reason for this is that politicians still recognise that they need to ameliorate social injustice and human hardship and the collapse of community.” It’s why Blair and Thatcher “crowbarred” the rhetoric of ‘rights and responsibilities’ into mainstream debate – to get round the overriding need to placate the individualist imperative. But it doesn’t really fit with the conspiracy-laden rhetoric about a new “political establishment” working against the young’s interests.

The driving suggestion is that our leaders are trapped by democracy. In this context the scorn poured on Blair’s pollster-oriented leadership seems a little misplaced: who can blame a politician for trying to give the voters what they want? They’ve just been responding to changes in society caused by the needs of the baby-boomers. If this means the needs of future generations are downgraded in importance, so be it. Howker and Malik attempt to provide us with some solutions, but none seem convincing after so many pages of one-sided misery. They’ve created a vicious circle of pessimism from which it’s rather hard to escape. Still, if you’re unemployed or facing renting forever, it’s good to know whose fault it is.