13 August 2021

Generation Z are angry about all the wrong things


When Harold Macmillan claimed in 1957 that the British people had “never had it so good”, he meant it as a warning. It stemmed partly from the tedious snobbery of this country’s squirearchy – the idea that nothing good could come proles getting new homes, cars, and washing machines. But also from a fear familiar to any CapX reader: that rising expectations would lead to ever higher wage demands and an inflationary spiral. It’s a warning that comes to mind when reflecting on the anger of my fellow youths. I’m a member of Generation Z, or the Zoomers. We are angry – and have every right to be. The trouble is that we’re angry about the wrong things.

Zoomers feels apt as a name after a year where video-conferencing software has become ubiquitous. Covid has hit young people hard. Not in medical terms, since it is a disease that largely leaves us alone. Instead, last year saw us robbed of eighteen of the best months of our lives. University terms were cancelled, holidays were postponed, and nightclubs shuttered. Once we got back to university, we found ourselves bossed around by rules and regulations designed to keep us in our rooms as much as possible. Graduates like me have entered a jobs market more uncertain than ever, whilst the number of 16–24-year-olds claiming universal credit is still 88% up on March last year. You would think this would make young people a bit cross.

Yet Generation Z have been angry long before Covid was even a glint in a Wuhan bat’s/virologist’s (delete as appropriate) eye. The common argument is that we face life prospects gloomier than a summer holiday in Pyongyang. Government policy over the previous few decades has conspired to make us the first generation since the Wall Street Crash set to be worse off than their parents. Saving for a deposit takes almost six times as long as it did forty years ago, as greying NIMBYs conspire to deny us the joys of home ownership that they so ardently cling to. Tony Blair’s desire to get 50% of school leavers into university has proved about as helpful as his ambition to root out WMDs in Iraq. More than a third of UK graduates are in non-graduate employment a decade after graduating whilst employers are worryingly short of people with manual and technical skills. All of this at a point where social mobility has largely stalled.

We are the realisation of Macmillan’s fears: a generation that was promised prosperity but didn’t get it. One doesn’t have to be a devotee of economic determinism to suggest that being loaded up with student debt, unable to get a decent paying job, and stuck in tiny flats would make us ticked off. According to the IEA, two-thirds of my fellow Zoomers would like to live in a socialist economy, 78% blame “capitalism” for our housing crisis, and 72% would like the renationalisation of everything from energy, to water, to the railways. It was not just a passing fondness for Magic Grampa that drove us younglings to the left. From BLM marches to climate strikes, the politics of the Islington leftie has become the basic outlook for Generation Z. We are the angry young men, women, and people of no fixed gender.

That I’m writing this for CapX and not Skwawkbox suggests I might not entirely tow my contemporaries’ line. My fellow Zoomers have no idea how lucky they are in a historical context. Though the graduate market may be as over-saturated as the housing market isn’t, my generation has grown up in more comfortable surroundings than any previous one. A 2019 ONS study found that the idea Zoomers have enjoyed far greater state benefits at our age than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. New Labour’s largesse in regard to the NHS, tax credits, and schools meant that today’s 20-24 year-olds received about £4,000 out of the state per year. At my age, my grandfather was paying in £2,500 a year. Of course, he was also stationed in Germany, doing his National Service. And he hadn’t had the chance to go to university. And he had grown up in age of war, rationing, and austerity. In comparison, a bit of student debt that most won’t pay off and living with Mum and Dad for a few more years doesn’t sound too bad.

Yet the impression one would get of us Zoomers is of a generation perpetually ungrateful. We indulge ourselves in social media pontificating, the occasional bout of statue toppling, and the odd school strike. We like to protest about issues either too big for individuals to do anything about – like climate change – or that are largely resolved in Britain – like police racism. You don’t see us manning the barricades about student debt, high house prices, or rising unemployment. Instead, pampered students rail against the capitalism their parents created while living off their capital. This week’s A-Level results – teacher-set, to prevent any complaints – is the obvious outcome of a generation more mollycoddled than any previous one.

The irony of this is that the last year has provided something for my generation to genuinely complain about. Again and again, we have been either scapegoated or forgotten by the authorities. We found ourselves demonised as “granny killers” by Matt Hancock for wanting to socialise or get an education. We were (understandably) last in the queue for vaccination, but that has also meant ongoing restrictions on our ability to travel and enjoy ourselves. Before this week, no mention had been made of compensating us for lost university terms, and those heading back in September face further rules and restrictions. Graduates have to look for a job in a climate where 30% of us Zoomers have lost theirs since last March. Yet where are the huge anti-restriction rallies, the university fee strikes, or protests in Parliament Square? We can topple a statue, but we won’t take off our masks. We might have never had it so good, but we have also never been so timid.

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William Atkinson is a recent graduate and freelance writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.