Barring a great rupture or reversal - a world war, a depression - it will always be better to be born later
The burden falls on each generation to feel sorry for itself, sometimes courteously setting its grievances to good pop music. Baby boomers tugged at the yoke of their parents' war-time morality. Generation X moped and shuffled against a society geared towards the boomers. With Generation Y, the first to be reared by elders whose cultural laxity matched its own, the resentments are material.
On March 16, British Chancellor George Osborne serenaded the "next generation" in his Budget, even sending new incentives to save their way. A week earlier, The Guardian charted the "financial rout" of people born between 1980 and the mid-1990s. Whatever millennials lack, it is not a platform on which to declaim their woes, of which stagnant wages, housing neuroses and the skewing of scarce resources to electorally potent old people are the most familiar.
The fracturing of public life along generational lines has felt imminent for some time. And it will continue to feel imminent. Generational politics will never take off because no normal person identifies with a collective as large and internally diverse as their age cohort. It is too tenuous a bond to spur concerted civic action. For that frisson of authentic brotherhood, the element of class must be present. I feel more for a self-made 50-year-old than a gilded youth. The inequities between millennials make a joke of their supposed togetherness as a political force.
Generational injustice is simultaneously borne out by data and untrue to anyone who lives in the actual world. Economists can trace the decline in real wages over time, the forbidding ratio of earnings to property prices for young workers, the relative prosperity of pensioners and twentysomethings. They cannot account for the dazzling consumer gains that come with technology and competition multiplied by the passage of time.
All the facilities now inherent to a smartphone would have cost a teenager in 1980 a king's ransom in separate, clunky machines. Writing to a friend in New Zealand would have incurred more than the near-zero cost of e-mail and Skype. Options for entertainment are now inexhaustible compared with 1980, 1990 or even 2000.
If the "rout" does not adjust for all this - and cheap flights, and lower crime, and the peace dividend after the Cold War - it is probably not a rout, just a hysterical account of youthful immiseration drawn from the narrowest metrics.
The test is plain: would you rather be born in 1960 or 1990? The first option allows you to buy a house aged 25 but in a poorer Britain. It gives you a free university education but less to spend those graduate earnings on.
The test is plain: would you rather be born in 1960 or 1990? The first option allows you to buy a house aged 25 but in a poorer Britain. It gives you a free university education but less to spend those graduate earnings on. If you are gay, you will be near middle age before the age of consent is equalised and approaching retirement before you have the right to marry your partner. If you are of a racial minority, you will nurse childhood memories of lawful discrimination.
Whatever your colour or sexuality, you will spend your youth swaddled in foreign exchange controls when you travel abroad, closed-shop rules when you try to find work, confiscatory taxes when you do well.
Fixing these rigidities was the poisonous political saga of the 1980s, the background noise of your prime years. The child of 1990 can take it all for granted.
It is a weirdly modern notion that each generation should be happier and better off than the last. The universe does not owe us a teleology of linear progress. But since 1945, and in much of the world, we have had more or less that.
Until a great rupture or reversal comes along - a world war, a depression - it will always be better to be born later. The young are lucky and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they know so. Their failure to vote is always put down to alienation as though the happier theory, that they have more diverting things to do, could not possibly exist.
A century ago, a generation of Westerners was born that would endure the Great Depression, fight World War II and live through the existential dread of the Cold War. While they should not be worshipped for their bad luck, their reluctance to bequeath a culture of complaint marks them out from their heirs. There is such cachet attached to youthful anger that nobody spells out the obvious. 1968, that seditious year on streets and campuses, was just a bit silly. The hangdog generation of Kurt Cobain and Douglas Coupland was not even intelligible in its grumbles.
And it takes a special lack of historical perspective to pity the millennials as uniquely cursed.
Generational politics is empty politics. Beneath the pose, there is nothing there.
THE FINANCIAL TIMES
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Millennials do not know how lucky they are'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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