England’s riots expose an inconvenient truth: Britain has become a highly unequal society in terms of wealth. As Zoe Williamshas argued, ‘this is what happens when people don’t have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can’t afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it’.It is no surprise that London – a city that maintains wealth-based cultural segregation despite an intimate co-existence between rich and poor in many areas – has been the epicentre of the unrest. But to get anywhere close to an explanation of the riots, it is necessary to consider how wealth inequality coincides with the fractured generational relations of Britain today.
Although David Cameron shows no sign of wanting to understand these deeper issues, it was Conservative minister David Willets that did as much as anyone to reignite interest in the kind of generational analysis that it is clearly required now. His book The Pinchdocumented how the baby boom cohort – born between the Second World War and the mid-1960s – had essentially stolen their children’s future through reckless under-investment, and a reshaping of the labour market, fiscal policy and even popular culture in accordance with their generational interests.
Paul Rogers has started to consider how wealth and generational inequality fit together in this regard, by arguing that ‘[m]any of those involved belong to a generation of 16-30 year-olds who are experiencing or facing unemployment, and life-prospects that are far more limited than their elders. Their frustrations are further exacerbated by real anger at the ostentatious wealth of elites, especially bankers.’ The boomers’ real crime, as Willets points out, was a failure to recognise the sacrifices of their parents’ generation in the making of their collective good fortune. A belief in their own ingenuity allowed an asocial individualism, long present in English political thinking, to become dominant in popular discourse and ultimately public policy.
The effects on youth
This has helped to create a situation in which youth unemployment is higher now than at any point since regards began. Those that are in employment are increasingly likely to be in temporary or unstable jobs with limited opportunities for progression. And the housing boom that has led to a huge transfer of wealth up the age distribution to the luckiest baby boomers has not happened by accident. It is the direct result of a decline in construction and the sell-off of social housing. Getting onto the housing ladder has become an impossible task for many young people, leaving them to fend for themselves in the private rental market with rising prices and rapidly falling standards.
We need to understand not simply that young people are experiencing hardship, but precisely what kind of hardship. In short, the attainment of full adulthood has been postponed. The basic building blocks of responsible citizenship are now far-off fantasies for many young people. Parents alone are in no position to rectify this, only work within the system to make sure increasingly scarce opportunities come the way of their child rather than somebody else’s. In terms of young people in general, instead of trying to understand and address the barriers that prevent the attainment of full citizenship, we have demonised young people as lazy and irresponsible. Even middle-class parents moan about their ‘boomerang kids’ over-reliant on ‘the bank of mum and dad’, seemingly blind to the structural barriers to accumulating their own wealth that even affluent young people are facing. It is in the intergenerational transfers within families that the genesis of inequality among today’s young people, making hardship even harder to bear for many.
This inequality has led to a conflation of the demonisation of the poor and demonisation of youth, the kind that is epitomised by the disgusting ‘chav’ label, peddled predominantly by young people against their peers. It is clear that for the Conservative Party leadership, the riots reinforce the image of certain groups of young people they had already formed, leading to a kneejerk response involving excessive sentences and the relaxing of safeguards designed to protect young people within the legal system. Many of the rioters, whether they are conscious of this or not, are rioting because they do not think the promise of a liberal democracy has any meaning for them – the government’s cruel response has made this prophecy self-fulfilling.
‘Responsibility’ has been the buzzword of the riot response. The conventional wisdom is that because the state has taken on too many responsibilities, individuals no longer feel a strong sense of personal responsibility towards their fellow citizens, whether in the form of community members, business owners, taxpayers, etc. Iain Duncan Smith calls it ‘welfarism’.
But is there any evidence that most people caught up in the riots are ‘on benefits’? Our wealth-based segregation is such that most people have very little understanding or appreciation of the nature and purpose of the social security system. If we look at this from a generational perspective, it is impossible to say that the state is doing too much for young people. With the abolition of the educational maintenance allowance and the reform of higher education funding, the state is actually retreating further from its responsibility to give young people a helping hand into adulthood – making outbreaks of super-sized adolescence almost inevitable.
For too many young people today, being responsible has no reward. We need to avoid an arbitrary juxtaposition between individuals, families, society and the state as the cradle of decent behaviour. We must recognise that unless we can provide the mechanisms – as well as the sermons – through which responsibility develops, and distribute opportunities for young people more equally (or at least less arbitrarily), we may well be about to write off an entire generation.