In a bid to heal inter-generational grievance, The Resolution Foundation has proposed that all 25-year-olds be given £10,000 to help buy a house or start a business.
There are principled objections to this kind of policy, not least the poor value that universal benefits tend to achieve compared with more targeted ways of spending our scarce public pounds. In addressing one form of economic grievance, you exacerbate others. Why, for example, should everyone’s taxes – drawn from the rich and the poor – be used to subsidise the lifestyle of an Oxbridge graduate at Goldman Sachs?
Simplistic policies like this emerge in a real vacuum of imagination about the roots of millennial anxiety and angst, and they take no account of the balance of needs across society as a whole.
Of course, there are vast and dangerous imbalances in the housing market that need correcting, and of course there needs to be a radical shift from assets to income, but this is not 1945, and millennials don’t need a new Nanny State.
Not all the explanations for generational angst can be rooted in stats, or even in material considerations that can be compared between generations.
In fact, a wealth of statistical evidence has been released over the past couple of years that points to just how well millennials are positioned in relative terms, that the housing market is no tougher than it was in the late eighties, and even that millennials make better lifestyle choices than their forebears on alcohol and drugs. Acres of column space have still been devoted to millennials – what we are, who we are, what we want – and how we’re somehow supposed to be different. Why is this?
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Articles that go beyond economics tend to focus on our apparently weird cocktail of lifestyle habits: how can we like streaming music but also want vinyl records? How can we be so desperate for connection and romance and yet still use dating apps?
That’s not going to get our analysis very far.
No, better to go for a much narrower definition of millennial(ism) and to root it in personal experience.
My own millennial story began in 2001. My first memory of politics was the bombing of the World Trade Center on 11 September. There is nothing before that – I don’t remember Blair, I don’t remember Major, I don’t remember Diana. I don’t remember New Labour’s public spending splurges or reforms to the NHS. I remember two planes in a bright blue sky. Politics entered into my psyche as a domain of trauma, ultra-violence and antagonism.
That wasn’t always so. Just 11 years earlier, the Berlin Wall came down. Here was a real example of the potential of revolutionary consciousness on a massive scale, of the power of politics, of the power of collective decision-making to achieve positive social change. So the generation before mine had a completely different set of formative experiences.
That goes some way to explaining why it isn’t particularly helpful to point out comparable levels of material prosperity across generations, or to propose random spending commitments for young people.
It’s much harder to deal with a real disaffection with traditional ways of doing things that can’t be adequately addressed by even the most closely targeted policy decisions. We lack a sense of common purpose. It just feels that the wind is against us, that things are not quite as they were, that the world is small. Arguably the most important national project of our time, Brexit, is not a source of great enthusiasm (unless we’re opposed to it).
Most of all, we need leaders who can shape a broader vision that explains who we are and where we came from. Fix that and you fix the millennial problem: it might not even cost £10,000, each.