It has been nearly a month since I graduated. My life is slowly returning to its normal rhythms, and typical work weeks and work days lay ahead for the foreseeable future. My initial thoughts about moving to America have faded, lost in the incessant drone of talk radio, which I perhaps misguidedly tuned into in order to get a handle on the present passions gripping the body politic. Furthermore, I recently attended a party at my sister’s home; her future father in law, who is of Chinese derivation but has spent most of his life in Vietnam, summarised matters best. He said that he liked Britain because he felt safe and nothing ever became too extreme here. On that gentle evening, with the orange streetlights visible through the window illuminating soft summer breezes swaying the sycamore trees, I could see the point. Yet back at work, I do see that while the extremes may not fully prevail, what is happening is bad enough.
I keep thinking about my fellow graduates, particularly those who had just finished their BA degrees; the thoughts are particularly strong and poignant whenever I cross the same courtyard where we celebrated after the ceremony. While my university has a good reputation, how many of them are now in their parents’ homes, their smiles of yesterday faded into hard grimaces while scanning websites for jobs? How many have just had the bill come due for their student loans and face years of repayment? How long will it be before they can even consider getting on the property ladder and settling down? I know too that these scenes are being repeated throughout the country and the situation may get even more strained. Lord Browne’s report on student fees is due soon; given cuts in government funding, these charges are likely to rise. Youth’s struggle to emerge and prosper will become all the more difficult as a result.
Unemployment blights the experienced as well. A friend of mine has been unemployed for as long as I’ve known her; while full of energy and ability, and even though she has an impressive CV from having worked as an administrator for investment banks, she cannot seem to get a break. The latest economic statistics suggest that the fragile shoots of new growth are hesitant and even wilting. We are lost in a miasma of uncertainty; while the majority are still thankfully employed, enforced idleness and resentment is being entrenched within the system. Furthermore, it does not appear that the government understands precisely how to fix it; all they know how to do is cut spending. The hope is that by reducing the role of the state, that this will create more space for the private sector to grow. As business increases, the theory continues, employment should rise. However there is a flaw in this idea: the incentives of private industry are geared towards maximising profit, not increasing employment. The last businessman who realised that he needed to improve pay and conditions in order to create a new market for himself was Henry Ford; he was right. However, his ideas have largely been forgotten. The people now serve the economy, rather than the other way around.
“South Park” perhaps summarised this system of belief best: in an episode entitled “Margaritaville”, the characters are seen almost worshipping the economy as if it was a living but elusive entity. All effort and austerity was intended to appease the almighty beast, in the hopes that it would restore prosperity of its own accord. In the end, the situation is saved because one of the young boys has access to a credit card with an unlimited balance, with which he uses to pay the entire town’s debts. The quasi-mystical rhetoric and the humourously messianic treatment of the boy with the credit card struck home because of the reality within the fiction. We want the economy to bestow grace and favour upon us again; we want 3% growth, we want to be employed, but we feel powerless to do anything except lay sacrifices at the altar. This is perhaps the most pernicious belief to which we cling at the moment: our inability to conceive of doing anything directly leads to inaction. Our horizons of the possible are shrinking, not expanding. The Left can protest the cuts, but seems unable to find the rhetoric which will get people to believe that the way things are now is fundamentally wrong and that radical change is possible.
Lest we forget, the way that the world is now is not how it has been, nor is a determinant of how it will be. This morning on Radio 4, a gentleman stated that Roman charioteers were proportionately wealthier than sports stars of today. His comparisons were interesting, but what was really noteworthy was his statement that such analogies were difficult to make, as the economy of the Roman world was much different to that of the present day. The changes which led to our modern system are of human creation; it is possible to take those changes back into human hands, rather than letting them be the aggregate of individual desires which have collectively run out of control.
If we refuse to do this, then the shadows which linger over our period will only lengthen. It was a feature of the French economy in the 1990’s that graduates would work without pay in order to get experience and hopefully gain a job later on. It is with some distaste that I see this practice now emerging in post-recession Britain. A generation is being lost, whole groups of people are slipping through the cracks into a vortex of economic exclusion all because we want to breathe life into something that is neither sentient nor respires, yet coils around us like a temperamental dragon, ready to expel devastating fire the moment we disturb it, but is also unwilling to move when we need it to do so.
No doubt the economy will eventually improve; I suspect that weak growth will be, to borrow a phrase from the famed bond trader Bill Gross, the “new normal”. There will likely be sufficient improvement in employment to prevent this safe country becoming too unsafe. An adequate number of graduates will get into work and get on an upward track. However, if we accept this as a good result, we are probably setting ourselves up for another eventual fall, another lost generation. We simply shouldn’t live like this; far too many good people cannot achieve either dignity or prosperity. But most of us are safe, and we don’t want to challenge lest our own lives be disrupted: it’s a pity, and in terms of wasted lives, it’s a tragedy.