When Britain left the EU on 31 January, led by a prime minister commanding a fresh eighty-seat majority in the House of Commons, a line (of sorts) was drawn under the most turbulent period in the country’s recent political history. The past four years have witnessed one historic referendum, two general elections, two major upsets at the ballot box, three prime ministers, the birth of the Brexit Party and multiple anti-Brexit groups, a Supreme Court judgment that the prime minister had behaved unlawfully, and much else along the way. But to the extent that Britain is now finally set on a new path, without any immediate political or constitutional obstacles to circumvent, there is one thing we can say with confidence: it is a path that is favoured overwhelmingly by people born before 1970.
In the 2016 referendum, 64 per cent of people over the age of 65 voted Leave, compared to 29 per cent of those under the age of 25. In the 2017 general election, 69 per cent of those over the age of 70 voted for the Conservative Party, compared to 21 per cent under the age of 25. The probability that an individual voted Conservative in that election increased by 9 per cent for each additional ten years. Boris Johnson was appointed Tory leader (and hence prime minister) in summer 2019 by Conservative Party members whose average age was 57. His subsequent election victory wasn’t due to any improvement in his party’s standing among the young, but because there was a drift of Labour voters (including young ones) towards smaller parties. Other than that, the electoral demographics were identical to those of 2017.
If you’re over the age of 50, the odds are that you’re happy with how it’s all worked out. If you’re under the age of 50, the odds are that you’re not, and if you’re under the age of 30, you may well be bloody furious. Britain has become a polity plagued by a fear of its own rejuvenation. How has this situation come about? It’s tempting to view the division in wholly ‘cultural’ terms – a clash of values. This story is well rehearsed, especially by the leader-writers and columnists of the Tory press. The conversion of polytechnics into universities in 1992, followed by the rapid expansion of higher education under New Labour, supposedly exposed vast swathes of young people to a more cosmopolitan, liberal mindset, indifferent to national tradition or received moral principle. Some go further still, arguing that the universities – and the humanities in particular – have bred a whole generation of graduates preoccupied with the politics of identity, who lack a strong sense of rootedness or respect for the past. The triumphalism that has filled the Telegraph and the Mail since December’s election derives from a belief that this cultural bogeyman has – at least for the time being – been put back in its box.
For most readers of those newspapers, the cultural threat posed by ‘millennials’ – generally defined as those born between 1981 and 2000 – is that they are relativist when it comes to personal values, gender and the family, and internationalist when it comes to history. The issues on which pro-Brexit Conservatives seem most keen to fight a culture war are those that have to do with violence, masculinity and war: whether or not to prosecute British soldiers for past crimes, what to teach schoolchildren about the British Empire, how to commemorate the war dead. In their view, hot-button claims of the sort that sees gender as a ‘construct’, or the British army as guilty of past massacres, started circulating in the 1990s. The responsibility for this ‘cultural’ virus is placed squarely with the universities.
It’s certainly true that today’s political divisions reflect educational ones: 68 per cent of UK voters with a degree chose Remain in 2016, while 70 per cent of those who left school at 16 or younger voted Leave. As Thomas Piketty shows in his new book, Capital and Ideology, parties of the working class have been gradually morphing into parties of the educated all over the world, a shift that began around 1990.But the expansion of higher education over the same period means that these are also – for the time being – parties of the young. In any case, it is a bold move on the part of reactionary commentators to interpret data showing a correlation between education and left liberalism as an indictment of universities and not, say, of contemporary conservatism.
This focus on higher education as the source of political conflict conveniently ignores another terrain of cultural division that is – for obvious reasons – uncomfortable for newspaper editors to contemplate. The generational divide in the way news is consumed is similar in magnitude to the one we see in voting behaviour. According to Ofcom, 58 per cent of people over the age of 65 get their news from a print newspaper, compared to just 20 per cent of those under the age of 25. Even when newspaper websites and apps are taken into account, the gap is still significant: 64 per cent to 35 per cent.
Newspaper readers are dying faster than they are being replaced; the circulation of most newspapers is falling by more than 10 per cent a year. As of 2017, the average age of a Daily Telegraph reader was 61. Nowhere does the current morbidity of British Conservatism feel more palpable than in the enraged dwindling of the right-wing press. And yet nothing has been more instrumental to the delivering of a Johnson-led Brexit than the right-wing press.
Where are young people getting their news, if not from newspapers? Conservative culture warriors can rest assured that the BBC is not picking up the slack: last year the number of 16 to 24-year-olds tuning into the BBC fell below 50 per cent for the first time. Social media platforms and aggregator services are the means through which this generation prefers to get its news, but the sources they click on and share come down to personal choice. Inevitably this triggers panics about ‘media literacy’ and vulnerability to ‘fake news’ – or even to extremism – but the fact remains that the power of editors and media bosses to shape mass public understanding of topics such as Europe, immigration and welfare policy has been in steady decline for many years. Among the many reasons 55 per cent of under-thirties voted Labour in the recent election is that few of them pay any sustained attention to the press.
So much for culture. What of material interests? The suspicion that baby boomers – generally defined as those born between 1945 and 1964 – have benefited disproportionately from postwar economic policymaking, both in its redistributive Keynesian phase and its subsequent neoliberal phase, has been growing for many years. Ironically it was a Conservative politician, David Willetts, who – in his 2010 book The Pinch – first assembled the evidence that a generational land grab had occurred in the UK, at the expense of the boomers’ children and grandchildren. The boomers enjoyed a childhood and early adulthood of generous public spending, along with free university tuition, abundant cheap property, then – for those who acquired assets during the 1970s and 1980s – growing house prices, share prices and pension pots.
The fact that older people vote in far higher numbers than the young has caused politicians to queue up to defend the interests of older generations: protecting the state pension from cuts, boosting the NHS, cutting capital gains tax and coming up with goodies such as free television licences for the over-75s. Of course statistical trends don’t reflect universal experience, and pensioner poverty is a serious problem, but there are advantages that the majority of older people enjoy: 73 per cent of those aged between 65 and 74 own their own home, for instance, compared to less than 5 per cent of under-35s. Novel monetary policies such as quantitative easing, which has contributed to a further rise in asset prices since 2009, have disproportionately benefited baby-boomers.
The intergenerational conflict over housing is becoming more entrenched as cities around the world become less affordable. In Hong Kong, more than half of people in their late twenties and early thirties are living with their parents – an under-recognised factor in the political discontents of that generation. In the UK, Corbynism took deepest root in the cities and university towns in which housing was most expensive. The Resolution Foundation calculates that the average millennial will spend £44,000 more on rent in their twenties than a baby boomer did. But even among older voters, the appeal of the Conservative Party doesn’t extend beyond the ranks of owner-occupiers: someone who rents in their sixties is no more likely to vote Conservative than someone who rents in their thirties.
This raises the question of whether generational analysis, beloved of market researchers and newspapers seeking to whip up moral panic, is ultimately a distraction from underlying patterns of capital accumulation. After all, the wealth that has accumulated in the hands of older cohorts will not remain in that generation’s hands indefinitely: it will be handed down to children and grandchildren via gifts and inheritance, thus reproducing inequality. The geographer Brett Christophers has argued that beneath the veneer of intergenerational conflict lies a familiar pattern of class conflict, deepened by the more ruthless form of capitalism that emerged at the end of the 1970s. Capital now extracts a much higher ‘wage’ from the production process than labour does, and older people draw more income from assets while younger people are more likely to depend entirely on income from labour. Along the way, some salaries have shot up, but principally among the senior managerial class, also dominated by the over-fifties.
Lisa Adkins, Melinda Cooper and Martijn Konings, political economists at the University of Sydney (the third least affordable city in the world), have developed a new model of class based on housing tenure and relationship to assets. They identify five different classes, with conflicting material interests: investors, indebted owners, outright owners, tenants and the homeless. Whose interests are prioritised is a political question, to which the dominant answer over the past forty years has been investors and owners. Generational conflict is an outcome of this political choice, not a driver of it.
And yet generational factors can’t be eradicated so easily from an account of Britain’s recent political history. For one thing, there is Brexit, a policy that serves no obvious material interests, and yet is favoured by a clear majority of over-fifties. What’s weirder is that last summer, while Nigel Farage was successfully dragging the Conservative Party towards his English nationalist platform, a correlation emerged between age, wealth and support for the most destructive forms of Brexit. Close to half of all over-sixties favoured ‘no deal’, a preference that was concentrated among those who described themselves as ‘financially secure’. Perhaps asset-owning retirees don’t stand to lose as much from an ultra-hard Brexit as those who work for a living, but it is nonetheless difficult to comprehend this kamikaze political preference in terms of class interest.
At the same time, details emerged about the social attitudes of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who were tasked with selecting the next prime minister following Theresa May’s resignation. Surveys of the party’s membership, of whom 71 per cent at the time were male and 38 per cent were over 66, discovered that the majority saw Brexit as more important than economic stability, the unity of the UK or the survival of the Conservative Party. Three-quarters of them believed that young people don’t have enough respect for traditional values, and nearly 60 per cent were in favour of the death penalty. While these fearsome views may not be representative of baby boomers as a whole, they are enough to suggest that an intergenerational political battle is indeed being waged – but between generations considered not as all-encompassing demographic classifications so much as lobbies or interest groups. What constitutes a cohort of people as a politically salient generation isn’t that they share a similar birthdate or even similar material interests: it is that they acquire shared experiences at a crucial phase in their lives, experiences which give them a shared political consciousness.
This is the premise of Keir Milburn’s Generation Left. In his account, the most significant political event of recent times was the financial crisis of 2008. It was 2008 that ‘crystallised and accelerated the ongoing generational divide in life chances’, breaking a central ideological pillar of postwar capitalism – namely, that a typical individual should enjoy greater prosperity than their parents. Milburn draws on Karl Mannheim’s 1923 essay ‘The Problem of Generations’, in which he argued that generations aren’t formed by the biological accident of contemporaneous births but constituted in periods of rapid change and upheaval, which shape the sensibilities of those entering adulthood during that time. As Mannheim sees it, stability and organic change do not result in the formation of generations. (If that’s so, we might ask whether ‘Generation X’, which entered adulthood between the mid-1980s and late 1990s, is much of a generation at all.)
The fallout from 2008 included a series of political decisions that had scant impact on asset owners and retirees, but fell heavily on the young. House prices and managerial salaries quickly recovered their upward momentum, while most wages slumped for the longest period since the industrial revolution. Partly because of this discrepancy, and partly because – as Mannheim argued – older people are not shaped by the impact of disruptive events in the way that young people are, the effects of 2008 weren’t fully visited on those who were already well set on the escalator of adult life, with degrees, assets and careers. For them, Milburn writes, 2008 ‘did not take place’. But for those who had yet to build the foundations for a secure and fulfilling adulthood, it was the formative political event of their lives.
Crucially, for the UK, the coalition government announced in late 2010 that university tuition fees would increase to as much as £9000 a year. This prompted two months of protests and university occupations, including the storming of the Conservative Party’s campaign headquarters at Millbank Tower. The Millbank occupation provided the ‘moment of excess’ that Milburn sees as decisive in the formation of new political movements and subjectivities, forcing ‘observers to make a decision on whether to align themselves with the old or the new space of possibility’. The sudden rise in fees, and the levels of debt into which students would now be thrown, provoked a sense of deep injustice that shows little sign of abating almost ten years later. The policy remains one of the most despised of Britain’s unhappy post-2008 era.
The anti-fees protests in the UK presaged a period of political activism around the world, led by newly mobilised young people against a political and economic establishment that appeared to be ignoring the scale of the 2008 crisis and the social harm it unleashed. In 2011 alone, protests included the Arab Spring, riots in several British cities, the emergence of the ‘Indignados’ in Spanish squares and the Occupy movement in Zuccotti Park. Milburn neglects to mention UK Uncut, but it exemplified the new style of eyecatching, social media-savvy protests, combining playful situationist radicalism with a set of demands that were so obviously reasonable – for example, that corporations should pay taxes at the same rate as everybody else, in order to protect public services – as to be impossible to ignore.
The next key phase in the formation of ‘Generation Left’ was the ‘electoral turn’ that occurred between 2014 and 2016, as a new ‘left populism’, both in Europe and the US, was fuelled by the mobilisation, and the votes, of the young. Surging enthusiasm for Podemos in Spain, followed by Syriza’s election victory in Greece in January 2015, Corbyn’s election as Labour leader eight months later and the steady rise of Bernie Sanders over the course of the year, suggested that, finally, the causes and handling of the financial crisis were being met with bold ideological opposition. These democratic movements drew, Milburn insists, on the energies of 2011. None of these electoral projects has yet succeeded in replacing the neoliberal status quo. But as the example of Momentum indicates, they have played a crucial role in drawing young people towards mainstream party politics, doing much to relegitimise parliamentary democracy in the process. Whether they will receive any credit for this, or even whether they will in the long run consider it to have been a worthwhile achievement, remains to be seen.
So long as the economy is governed primarily in the interests of asset-owners, a majority of young people will remain antagonistic to the status quo. The fetish for home ownership, exploited so successfully by Thatcherism, is less effective in legitimising capitalism the more people are shut out of owning property. Owner-occupancy rates in the UK only reached 50 per cent as recently as the late 1970s, then peaked at around 70 per cent on the eve of the financial crisis, before falling back to 63 per cent since. As Milburn points out, the rate of home ownership among young adults has halved over the past twenty years.
The young people of Generation Left are now habituated to an economy organised around rents, which they experience not just as tenants but through the dubious opportunities afforded by the ‘sharing economy’. Work space, spare bedrooms, cultural ‘content’ and vehicles aren’t things to be owned, but hired on a time-limited basis. Conversely, with the demise of the ‘career’ as the dominant way of organising working life, a young person comes to view him or herself as a rentable asset, which finds its price on the market. This is the logic that underpins Instagram-based celebrity as much as it does cycling for Deliveroo. Having to view oneself as a business venture means that no time can be enjoyed or gratuitously wasted without considering how it contributes (or doesn’t) to one’s earnings and future security. As many young people can attest, one of the dominant symptoms of these economic conditions is a feeling of utter exhaustion.
Milburn, following Marx, sees a glimmer of hope in the propertyless condition of Generation Left. Just as Marx believed the proletariat had a higher capacity for freedom than the bourgeoisie precisely because they weren’t burdened by property, the young are currently able to see through the delusions and ideological fictions of neoliberalism. Being shut out of the economic mainstream affords an epistemological vantage point that those inside the system lack. Milburn is damning of many professional journalists’ inability to understand the appeal of Corbynism. For those experiencing the effects of 2008, the unsustainability of the status quo appears quite obvious. ‘Property ownership on a mass scale is a relatively recent affair,’ Milburn observes, ‘and, judging by declining rates of home ownership among the young, it increasingly looks like a temporary one.’ What other tenancy arrangements will come in its wake? What rights and regulations would finally shift the balance of power in housing?
Milburn believes that, given sufficient political power, Generation Left could ‘reinvent adulthood’, channelling the passions of 2011 into a new policy platform that would confer economic security as a matter of citizenship rather than a consequence of asset ownership. This in turn would free up spare time in which people could participate more vigorously in democratic politics. Forms of universal provision and income guarantees – of the sort being demanded by democratic socialists around the world – are the logical destination of the political sensibility that was forged in the aftermath of 2008. And yet in Britain, after the heady near-miss of 2017, Corbynism is now at a low ebb, weighed down by factionalism, the antisemitism scandal and December’s election.
Generation Left remains, for the time being, disempowered and defeated. A Conservative government, tirelessly cheered on by a 20th-century newspaper industry, has been voted in by the massed ranks of the over-fifties. The question is whether, despite its recent successes, the Conservative Party is sitting on a ticking demographic time bomb. Culture war tactics may work in the short term, and may shore up support on the margins, but they are essentially defensive. They don’t offer much to a generation whose values are already cosmopolitan, internationalist and liberal, who despise Nigel Farage and what he stands for, regardless of whether or not they went to university. It is plausible that broadening home ownership – unlikely as that may be – could shift this generation’s political preferences to the right on economic issues (that was the hope behind David Cameron’s pitiful ‘help to buy’ scheme), but there is no reason to expect them to become more sympathetic to the views of Priti Patel or the Daily Mail as they get older.
Milburn’s optimism derives from the belief that the sequence of injustice followed by protest and then electoral mobilisation is what drives political change. It’s far too early to dismiss this, especially as Labour is still in the process of selecting its next leader, and the full effects of Brexit are yet to be felt. But the revolt of the over-fifties, which has ultimately decided the course of the past four years, is a reminder of how generational succession can be stalled. How, in Mannheim’s sense, was this generation of enraged, Faragist men forged? What was it that shaped them at that crucial age between adolescence and financially independent adulthood? The obvious answer would be 1968, with all of the cultural, political and sexual upheavals that came with it. And yet, as with Millbank Tower in 2010, most people played no part in that ‘moment of excess’ – indeed, many may only have come to know it as something foreign, alluring and dangerous, a party to which they were never invited. Britain is now suffering the consequences of a resentment that has been half a century in the making. A new Generation Left exists for sure. But how they will eventually impose themselves politically, and when, is still unclear.
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