It’s time the young got a break. Already, those who left education to enter the workforce after the financial crisis of 2008 have had their lives scarred. If you get unlucky and enter work in bad economic times, it will shadow your entire life.
Thus the 2008-11 “crisis cohort”, as the Resolution Foundation calls them, have suffered measurably lower wages, fewer career opportunities and more insecure work than their predecessors. And now Covid-19 is creating a “super-crisis cohort” about to experience the same effect, only worse. Unless government, business and society collectively act, what lies ahead will be unfairness heaped upon unfairness.
Last week, it became obvious just how profound the impact is going to be. What caught the headlines was the Office for Budget Responsibility’s scenario of a possible fall in GDP of 35% over the next three months with a rise in unemployment of two million. But it optimistically assumed that an exit strategy would allow a rapid economic recovery. Without vaccines and extensive capacity to mass test and contact-trace, there is no prospect of an early and swift bounce-back – just a gradual, trial-and-error, partial easing of the lockdown. And, sorry to mention it, but the self-defeating Brexit at a time of collapsing world trade is going to make matters worse.
Already, the early figures are showing that, once again, the young are being hardest hit. The under-30s are now two-fifths more likely to be working fewer hours and two-thirds more likely to be made unemployed than their seniors – they tend to be in more insecure work and have fewer skills. Moreover, even low-skilled work, of the type that used to be available, is drying up.
We failed to build an economy with roots, of firms with sustainable business models; the last 40 years was a world of soft options, financial engineering, easy money and extravagant pay at the top. The property market constituted an amazingly unsustainable 14% of GDP. It is all unravelling in a matter of weeks and, as matters stand, it will be our children who will bear the brunt.
The first to be hit will be those who were due to take exams this summer, now to be accorded GCSEs, A-levels and degrees on the basis of their course work and teachers’ assessments. The worry for all of them is that 2020 qualifications won’t stack up against those taken in 2021 or 2022.
That is not all. Young people have active social lives. They go clubbing and to concerts, they share flats and houses. The world of social distancing ahead is going to make all that so much harder. Small wonder that young people are disproportionately reporting depression and mental health problems.
But in my experience, the millennials and generation Z are morally grounded and ethically driven, perhaps more so than their world-weary elders. They want to do right, to act on the world for the better. It is not faddishness that drives their passion to confront climate change, eat less meat, treat each other equitably and want strong relationships with their parents. What is striking in this crisis is just how willing these young people, for whom coronavirus is less life-threatening, are to stand shoulder to shoulder with older people. They are an awe-inspiring bunch. It’s a debt society must repay.
So, all plans for recovery and rebuilding must be organised in a way that there is no disadvantage in being under 35 and, where possible, our societal debt is acknowledged. Let’s limit the damage to our children’s education. Primary schools and nurseries must be opened first, followed rapidly by secondary schools and universities. The Student Loan Scheme needs to be wholly recast or replaced.
Beyond that, there is a triple obligation: to build an economy that does not treat young workers as disposable commodities; to take measures that safeguard the young as much as the old; and to use the pandemic as the trigger for societal reinvention. We have to future-proof ourselves, nationally and internationally, against viruses, climate crisis, cyber-attack and the many menaces ahead.
All organisations should be obliged to be purposeful generators of genuine value, housed in a reformed ecosystem of finance, ownership and regulation that fosters it. That is the precondition for creating great workplaces for young people and the possibility of building skills and careers. However, this must be buttressed by an overhaul of our training system and trade unions that appeal to youth.
Too much of the burden – of paying taxes, of propping up the housing market as first-time buyers, of being the first to be made redundant – is borne by our youth. The triple lock on pensioner incomes is now insupportable.
The furloughing scheme should not be summarily dropped after lockdown: rather, it should morph into a variant of the German “short-work” scheme, offering job subsidies for lost working hours but targeted at workers who entered the labour market after 2008 and those with children. Where the young(ish) have negative equity as house prices fall (as they inevitably must), government and lenders must offer a mortgage guarantee.
But, above all, let’s build an economy and a society that inspires. Let’s offer young people hope that they can believe in the future. The new normal must not be a regression to former inequalities but one that, in trying to enfranchise everyone, will offer them a fairer deal. My generation could have left a much better legacy. If this noxious microbe becomes the catalyst for changing that, it would provide at least one silver lining among otherwise overwhelmingly dark clouds.
• Will Hutton is an Observer columnist