The prize of youth

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It’s so hard to be young.

Increasing property prices, the pressure of exams, student loans, reduced pension entitlement and longer working lives give young people so much to complain about.

In the ’50s “angry young men” directed their bitterness towards the oppressive culture of an age that suppressed their ambition and their opportunities. Today’s youth are just as angry but less likely to toe the line or tolerate perceived unfairness, and our youth-centred media allows that anger to be vented much more vociferously.

The press is full of it.

But is the cacophony of complaint justified? Improvements in living standards over the last 50 years have been intense; far from being the victims of the age, the young generation of 2017 inhabit a better, more opulent and more exciting world than any previous generation could ever have imagined.

The world today is a colourful and vibrant place: it is an age of indulgence, plenty and pleasure. As late as 1994, virtually all shops were closed on Sundays, cafes were steamy and unappealing, Wi-Fi was unheard of and shopping was less of a leisure activity than a necessary chore fuelled by stodgy carbohydrates under the glare of harsh strip lights on greasy formica tables.

Property may have been cheaper, but today 60% of first-time buyers are supported with generous parental subsidies and it is not unusual for grown up children in their 20s or even 30s to be supported with the costs of their holidays, childcare and housing. The quality of property has also improved dramatically, both in terms of its fabric and its structure, so the problems of damp, inadequate ventilation and heating have virtually disappeared from modern homes. Today, for the first time, the young can live in warm, safe and brilliantly designed and engineered accommodation that previous lords, ladies or even maharajas would have gasped at.

A far cry from the squalid digs available to previous generations, one bedroom student flats on Charlotte street in Clifton, Bristol, have just been released by the Bristol-based developer Urban Creation at a rent of £1,500 per month. Where that sort of money comes from is a mystery to Berkeley Squares, but we surmise that the students living there don’t actually earn the money themselves: the point is that today’s younger generation have never had it so good, and the older generation are paying the bills.

The introduction of the minimum wage has also boosted lower level incomes considerably: currently at £7.50 an hour, it reflects the generally rising standards of income across Britain. Minimum wage earnings are topped up by in-work benefits that totalled over £11bn last year through handouts such as income support and housing benefits.

On top of that, although higher earners must contribute to the cost of their education through student loans, the huge increase in numbers opting to go to university represents one of the greatest ever steps in addressing social immobility as well as one of the most significant mass-education opportunities ever offered. No longer is anyone in Britain condemned to a world where they must follow their fathers into jobs down a mine, to a life without education or knowledge, just because of where they were born. Anyone who wants to go to university can.

Jobs themselves are evolving too. Despite 50% of existing jobs being at risk from automation, new opportunities are already emerging. Whoever wanted to do the job of a machine anyway? Future trends in employment are impossible to predict but the reassessment of what work means and the part that it plays in our lives can only be healthy. What is very clear is that young people are much less willing to put up with boring assembly line work, whether in a factory or an office, and that the “gig” economy is presenting creative opportunities for many that are millions of times more fulfilling and available to everyone. Even the unemployed are entitled to state benefits of over £11,000 a year and, whilst few would consider this sufficient to enjoy all that life has to offer, for a young single person without responsibly it is considerably more than that ever available to previous generations.

It doesn’t need to be like this

The danger of wealth and opulence is that it creates a sense of entitlement which can breed dissatisfaction if we compare ourselves to others who are even better off. Before we do so, pause. It is a wonderful world and this is a great place to see it.