The vexed generation

Sophie Harrison explores the personal altruism, social anxieties and political antipathy of ‘Generation Next’, in light of a new survey

In a new report illustrating “Generation Next”, compiled by the National Children’s Bureau and Ipsos Mori, the portrait that emerges is quite startling. Far from the picture of apathetic adolescence, embroiled in a vacuous digital age, it displays minds that are mature, insightful and informed.

This is a group that recognises the personal and public challenges presented now and in the future. However, from acknowledgment comes realisation, which provokes anxieties, then fears, before culminating in tragic disillusionment; the very detachment misconstrued as apathy.

With an imploding technological landscape, the world is a far cry from that of previous generations. Nevertheless, for all its advancement, young people are faced with a job market that is bleak and an economy still battered, while politicians remain quite blind to the voice of a generation vexed.

Possibly the most concerning revelation of this survey is that less than two in five expect life to be better for them than it was for their parents, with 25% believing it could be even worse.

The independent insight into their present – and prophetic – position is to be noted. Countering the image of hedonistic youth drinking, selfie taking and digital dependency, statistics show that their general anxieties are quite void of superficiality.

Rather than daily despairs being concentrated primarily on image (44%) and keeping to date with trends (23%), far more pressing are concern for future job opportunities (63%) and obtaining the qualifications to pursue them (69%). This awareness is a refreshing departure from media stereotype; however, it does not alter the facts. For Generation Next, hard times ahead ring more true than great expectations.

The tripling of tuition fees means that, by default, a constructive degree will be accompanied by crippling debt. There is an irony that, in trying to widen the road of opportunities, students are paving the way for decades of loan repayment. Prospects turned from bright to bleak in the blink of a signature. An insincere signature at that, for this is the other great crux – complete loss of confidence in the administration.

It was not purely the action itself, notwithstanding its repercussions. It was the betrayal that lay behind it; Nick Clegg’s backtrack was the pinnacle of broken trust between governance and society’s grassroots.

When young people express a seeming disinterest in politics, it is not a ‘politics’ synonymous with actual policy, ideology or philosophy. Their politics is the tragic reality of a passive governing body. Politics is the expenses scandal, the bankers’ bonuses, and the lack of opportunities – despite insistence from both sides of the despatch box that things will change.

The survey reveals that, within Generation Next, 71% have no allegiance to any political party and only 14% of young people think the Government will do a good job for the country over the next year.

The difference between adult and youth voting turnouts has escalated in recent times. At the last election, Ipsos Mori statistics showed that 76% of over-65s were still voting, while only 44% aged 18-24 were doing so. In the space of a few decades, the point gap between the generations has doubled. Nevertheless, perhaps the mirroring of this tangible gap, with the “gap between promise and practice in politics” (Dr Maria Grasso, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield) is no coincidence.

In light of such disenchantment, one more surprising revelation is that one fourth would call for the voting age to be lowered. This is also contrary to an apparent conservatism within this generation. The media sensationalises with reports of child pregnancies, youth binge drinking and social disorder; perversely, the data reveals that Generation Next would see the ages for alcohol and cigarette purchasing, gambling, and marriage among other things raised. The quite conspicuous variation in this trend? The vote.

We then turn to issues of policy, and there is further rationality. In terms of prioritisation, one fifth feel that the government should focus its spending on the NHS, while education (15%) and poverty (11%) are other high priorities.

What would the media likely presume? Something far removed from this – it would portray Generation Next as far more impractical, illogical and irresponsible.

Moreover, local issues provide a quite refreshing rebuttal of the typecast teen image. Cast light onto them, and the landscape is refreshingly clear from clouds of ignorance, or exclusively green pastures. Far from self-serving prioritisations such as improvements in facilities for education and recreation – this stands at less than 25% – Generation Next are instead placing an emphasis on lower crime levels and clean streets (35%) – societal concerns. Moreover, the desire for more affordable housing (34%) demonstrates a forward outlook – young people are not passive, naïve to the future.

What does the overall picture depict? That Generation Next is responsible, practical, and insightful. They are aware of the issues on an individual, local, and national scale. Where does the problem lie? They are not being heard. As Ben Bowman, a political researcher at the University of Bath, succinctly put it, “distrust and dissatisfaction are denounced as self-centred truancy”.

The media and government underestimate and overlook. This generation is not apathetic; they are antipathetic. They are angry, prematurely hardened by lack of results and loss of respect.

The government does not help itself. Firstly, there is the unfortunate prevalence of Old Etonians In the Cabinet, at a time when young people are identifying wealth as the primary barrier to future prospects. Comments such as those by former Education Secretary Michael Gove, that “it’s ridiculous. I don’t know where you can find a similar situation in any other developed economy”, comes in the midst of evidence that two fifths of young people believe an affluent background makes it is easier to get a well-paid job. Moreover, a further 27% deem a private school education as synonymous with higher career prospects.

Coming from a background of private education myself, I have some concern for the projection of negative connotations surrounding backgrounds. Looking at the facts offers some perspective; in 2014-15 20 Russell Group universities will spend nearly £200 million on scholarships and bursaries, aimed at the most disadvantaged. Moreover, 15 of these Universities are also part of the “Realising Opportunities” scheme – these include Exeter, Bristol, Manchester and King’s College, London – offering a range of courses and experiences to raise their HE prospects.

I do not believe it is so much the presence of background in government, however, that Generation Next recoil most from. It is the projection – how politicians act. Twelve-year-old Stella Gardner hit the headlines recently, after her comment on the Newsround website – “how can we [respect our elders] if they are acting like five-year-olds by calling each other names?” – saw her invited to Parliament and given an audience with Speaker John Burcow.

When trying to engage young voters – believing they “get it”, to use Ed Miliband’s memorable phrase – politicians become woefully out of touch. The survey acknowledged how Generation Next are the “technology age”, but this has been adopted by parliament with questionable results. Notable recent PR blunders include David Cameron using his twitter page to tweet a picture of him on the phone to Obama, discussing the Ukraine Crisis. You couldn’t make it up. It spectacularly backfired, producing an array of comical spoofs.

Nevertheless, behind the outward mockery, there is again something more unsettling. The Ukraine situation is real. It isn’t a social media tool, or game. Just as tuition fees, and low job prospects, are all real issues impacting real people.

There was also the infamous selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; what would the reaction be if schoolchildren pulled out their camera phones at the funeral of a teacher?

Hypocrisy in social etiquette is rife in government. Last month, Labour posted a mocking video of Clegg the “uncredibly shrinking man”. It wasn’t funny, it was crass. The same bullying that is exhibited in the Playground of the House of Commons each Wednesday, which saw a twelve-year-old call on the people leading her country to, in no uncertain terms, grow up. The irony is quite tragic.

Nick Clegg, last election the voice of the young generation, still seems to be living in the long-faded cloud of Clegg-Mania. Commenting on the “assumption of the two bigger parties that they somehow have a right to run things”, he argued earlier this year that the most democratic thing would be for Lib Dems to continue in government, with him as Deputy PM until 2020. The irrationality of this statement screams; however, while the young generation listens and despairs, politicians remain deaf. Clegg does not “get it” either. None of them do.

If someone does, perhaps we need look no further than Generation Next. If the survey can deduce one thing it is that, just maybe, the next generation are the ones who do get it. Who do see clearly, and are vexed by this realisation that those in power do not.

On one side of the fence sit Generation Next; opinionated and educated, they have a voice. As Labour MP Sadiq Khan commented, earlier this year, the millions of young people “involved in campaign groups and charities put political parties to shame, and shows the appetite for involvement is out there’. The issue arises when they cast their eye over the fence, and see a pandemic of sheep flu. Politicians, who hesitate on decisions, pander for votes, embellish ineptitude and skirt the true issues. Leading the flock for students are no-fees Nick – and their own Prime Minister.

The term ‘broken society’ – coined by David Cameron – is a paradox. The media portrays a vacuous and narcissistic youth. We’re not the only ones taking a selfie, Mr Cameron. If we are a broken society, the very people who denote its existence provoked it. If we are irrevocably broken, the fractures that make this so are rooted in the heart of Westminster. In the square outside, you can see the statues of leaders – Atlee, Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher – that lead previous generations. They offered something.

We are not the apathetic Next Generation. The survey evidences that, contrary to media projections, we are engaged with long-term issues, empathetic to societal concerns, and engrained with principles that exhibit a striking maturity. We are not estranged from the issues, but the implementers: the politicians who make promises as paper-thin as the ballot paper we are supposed to stamp our loyalties onto.

Do I therefore decide my cross will not go inside a box, but instead span the width of this paper that tries to cover all cracks? Where politicians make promises that cannot be kept, and Generation Next know this. Do I, at the age of 20, resign myself to an imminent future of spoilt ballots? I will never join the worrying number that won’t make the walk to the polling booth, but I am not entirely unsympathetic to their plight.

The next generation have powerful tools; they need to be given something to build, and for society to trust that they can.

Sophie Harrison went to school at Royal High, Bath, and is now an undergraduate at Exeter University


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