From housing to vaccine passports, politicians act as if young people don't exist | Zoe Williams


House prices were having a mini-boom by last July, buoyed up by what felt like the windfall of a stamp duty holiday and the pent-up demand of the first lockdown. By the autumn, prices were still climbing, but not to worry, said the experts: they’ll crash again when people start to lose their jobs. With that foot yet to fall, things continue to look very rosy, if you’re a house. For everyone else, a crazy situation has only got worse.

The latest figures in the UK from December show that house prices are now 8.4 times the annual average income. The only time that figure has ever been marginally higher was just before the global financial crash in 2008. Those who have managed to hoick themselves on to the ladder think they’re the winners in a fiendish game of skill and chance. Compared with tenants, who pour their wages indefinitely down the drain of the rentier economy, mortgage-holders do seem well blessed.

Yet the scale of debt puts mortgage-holders in a state of indentured servitude which, if we could only stop blinking at our own good fortune for a second, we might object to. The ideal citizen for the age is the one who bought their house in January 1958, paid off their mortgage decades ago, and is now sitting on millions. This is why we’re all supposed to rail against boomers (though technically people in this position, now in their 80s, are part of the “silent generation” that preceded boomers), but you can bet that they’re spending all that hard-earned leisure worrying about their children and grandchildren. The world we’re accelerating into is working for landlords and for banks. Or to put that more simply, for capital alone.

Of course there are solutions to all of this – there are answers that worked in the past, otherwise we’d all be paying rent to the Duke of Westminster – and answers for people with a supply-side fetish (build more social homes). There are answers that solve other economic and environmental crises (bonds for energy-neutral homes, cooperatively owned housing) and answers that might sound radically, dangerously redistributive, if you’re an overlord in 1691 (the land value tax).

It is not beyond our collective wit to make secure, affordable, decent quality housing accessible to all, but our political culture is putting up one last defence against thinking seriously about change. If politicians can inflate what is essentially a rather plodding, earthbound struggle between capital and labour into a clash between generations, and keep that balloon in the air long enough, they might just distract us from the possibility of any practical solution.

But pitting one age group against another has a hard limit, a point at which this deadlock simply offends one’s natural sense of justice. The aftermath of the pandemic may be that boundary. Throughout 2020, pointing out what vast sacrifices the young were making for the old tended to be an anti-lockdown position. Since the alternative to lockdown was mass death, it just wasn’t a very fruitful line of inquiry. Yet we’re now at the stage of reconfiguring previous norms, and we’re still having debates about housing and so much more as if the under-35s were irrelevant.

We talk about the return to the office as if the debate is simply about balancing the interests of the worker who’d prefer to be at home against those of the chief exec of Pret a Manger. Our new word for whatever compromise may emerge is the “agile” workplace, which sounds great. Middle-aged people love agility: it reminds us of the 90s. But there’s no obvious consideration here of what the office represents to those at the start of their careers. It’s not just a commute and a frothy coffee. It’s where you learn and progress and build your skills, hard and soft, and get away from your crappy flat where you’re working on an ironing board.

Meanwhile, the vaccination passport debate unfolds as a matter of civil liberties – can the state compel you to take a vaccine, with the reward of everyday freedoms? This doesn’t acknowledge the generation that has yet to be even offered a vaccine. Housing, work and health all seem like disparate issues, but once a generation is etched out of one of these spheres, they can be steadily erased from others.

When you’re no longer considered a stakeholder, you’re a nuisance. The young have become the pigeons of the public realm, only remarked upon for their poor mental health or when they leave litter in a park. As a discourse, it’s untenable and ridiculous: but it’s only from a position of middle-age that I can admire its absurdity. If I were in my 20s, I’d be about ready for a revolution.

Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist



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