COVID-19 threatens to become the precipitating event that reshapes the way we think about work, commuting, and urban living.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of 2020, you are owed an apology.
You’re heading into the worst labour market since the Great Depression while simultaneously competing with millions of recently laid-off and furloughed employees. Three years of university (four in Scotland and the U.S.) down the drain, all from something that poses 22-year-olds a statistically insignificant risk. You will forever be Generation Cancelled. All of Gen X through Z’s FOMO has transformed into FOGO: fear of going out.
The people who owe you an apology are, for the most part, people my age and older. I’m a Gen X-er, and we were supposed to be the first generation that would finish up worse off than our parents, but in the end, it didn’t happen. We (just) caught the bottom of the ladder before the Boomers had knocked out too many rungs or pulled the bloody thing up after them.
You, by contrast, were shovelled into tertiary study as the fees (£9000 per annum in the UK, plus loans to allow you to live away from home) went through the roof, and told to study hard so you’d get a good job. But that model’s screws and nuts have been loosening for a while, and now it’s completely fallen to bits. Even before coronavirus, real incomes for British residents 60 and older grew 11 per cent between 2007 and 2014, while those 30 and younger suffered a seven per cent loss. In the U.S. during the same period, the share of young Americans earning more than their parents did by age 30 plunged from nine in 10 for those born in the 1940s to barely half for those born in the 80s.
You copped cancel culture, pronoun police, and “diversity and inclusion”—of everything but sound ideas. You’ve been let down, and you’ve been lied to. If you have a humanities or social sciences degree—particularly one from outside the Russell Group—you should probably start practising burger-flipping and asking people if they’d “like fries with that.”
Worse, Tony Blair’s desire to see 50 per cent of the 18-30 cohort attend university pretended anyone, given enough education, could become “above average.” However, all the below average get is student debt, several unwaged years out of the labour force, and then (maybe) a “bullshit job.” You’ve glimpsed a leisured life of the mind you can never attain, and there’s likely no house to be had for you either. On the issue of the moment, HMGov was so incompetent it prepared for the wrong sort of pandemic—flu, not coronavirus. In policy terms, your elders have utterly screwed the pooch.
I am not going to give you blether on “being agile” or try to tell you how to get out of debt. This is because I haven’t had to be particularly agile in my life (how many people write a bestselling novel in their 20s?) and I genuinely don’t know what to do about the coming global debt crisis. No, it’s not just you. We’re all—nation-states included—in over our heads. We’re like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s passenger: having boarded the wrong train, it’s no use running along the corridor in the other direction.
One crumb of comfort: university may not have improved your mind, but you can. So do that.