Labour’s historic purpose has always been to defend and advance the interests of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Right now, however, the party – and our whole society – is failing 13.8 million people who are all but sure to experience lower living standards and a harder life than those who came before.
Today, for the first time in living memory, we have created the prospect of a generation living with the near-certainty that they will be worse-off than their parents. Those born after 1980 – better known as ‘Generation Y’ or by the sneering tabloid label ‘Milennial’ – face a toxic cocktail of stagnant or falling wages, crippling debt and insecurity at work and at home. That most sacred promise of our society – that we shall give to our children more than we ourselves received – has been well and truly broken.
In 1991, some 65% of 25-34 year olds owned their own home. By 2012 that figure had fallen to 45% and it’s falling all the time. In the 35-44 year old age group the same figure has gone from 80% to 60% in the same period. With house prices ever-rising as wages remain static, Generation Y (also known as ‘Generation Rent’) looks likely to be locked out of home ownership – too few of us will ever have the security of a home of our own. Instead, unable to buy, too many will stay trapped in insecure, overpriced private rents.
And it’s not just about housing. The average graduate now leaves university with around £45,000 in debt, and walks out into a job market where they’re judged too inexperienced for anything other than a zero hours contract or an unpaid internship. We have some of the best-qualified baristas and call centre workers in the world in this country, commuting two hours to work for a ‘living wage’ that’s not enough to live on, unable to get a loan because they don’t have credit, told to work longer for less money, and servicing the vast, unfunded promises that the previous generation made itself.
The scale of those unfunded promises is eye-watering. The Treasury’s Whole of Government Accounts (WGA), which unlike the National Accounts readily quoted by politicians of all hues show the many unfunded liabilities on the public sector balance sheet, show that the UK has stored up a tab of over £6 trillion in liabilities that Generation Y will have to pick up – or, to put it another way, £221,000 per household.
Those liabilities include decades of unfunded promises made by the Baby Boom generation to itself on pensions and benefits, as politicians have fawned over those who are ‘more likely to vote’ and backed down in the face of intense lobbying, giving away an ever-expanding array of headline grabbing gimmicks and freebies.
Nobody has worked all their life and pad into the system for a winter fuel payment, free TV license or subsidised travel, nor have they paid towards a permanent State Pension ‘triple lock’ that will see pensions rise faster than earnings far into the future. Instead, the cost of these unfunded liabilities will inevitably be borne at the expense of the young.
There is nothing progressive about storing up a debt apocalypse for our children to pay, promising more and more unearned and unfunded election giveaways to a generation that’s already ‘never had it so good’ and asking a generation that’s at risk of never having it so bad to foot the cost. A cost which is consuming more and more of government spending each year – providing an all-too-convenient excuse that ‘there is no money’ to redress the balance in favour of Generation Y.
And yet Labour, even under Jeremy Corbyn – propelled to the Labour leadership on a tide of frustrated young people desperate for change – so far shows no sign of breaking this cycle. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has pledged to continue the triple lock beyond the next election, a reckless and unaffordable commitment aimed at wooing older voters that has – according to the polls – spectacularly failed to work, while the party’s offer to the jilted generation struggling under the weight of debt and insecurity is currently confused to the point of non-existence.
Labour must not betray the next generation – we must restore the promise of a better life for our children. Fixing the scourge of crippling debt, equipping our young people with the skills they need in the new economy, creating decent, secure, fairly-paid jobs and above all building good, affordable homes and supporting young people to buy them, must be at the centre of everything we do. And we must be prepared to right this intergenerational wrong by bringing down the debt we are leaving behind and putting an end to the something-for-nothing culture of election freebies and giveaways, which nobody has paid for and which will only add to the burden we are passing on.
More even than this, Labour cannot betray the next generation by remaining unelectable and out of power for years to come. The problems facing Generation Y are urgent and potentially catastrophic – and if we don’t act quickly to solve them they will be permanent, and the fate of a generation worse off than its parents will be inescapable. The Tories, who rely on the votes of the Baby Boomers for their majority, can and will never find the political will and courage to solve them. Only Labour can – but we cannot do it from opposition. Whatever steps it takes to return to office, we must take – the clock is ticking.