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The case for

The young

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Young people may have been spared the worst health effects of Covid, but in other respects they have suffered the most.

What’s going on?
The young have been stuck inside all year to help fight a disease that in most cases doesn’t hurt them. “Don’t kill granny” was the emblematic slogan of the pandemic: everyone assumed it would be kids who would spoil lockdown and kill us all. In fact, says the Office for National Statistics, young folk were just as likely to follow the rules as anyone else.

Hasn’t it always been hard for the young?
In some ways, yes. Older people have never paid them much respect. “Youth is wasted on the young,” said Oscar Wilde. “Until I grew up I thought I hated everybody,” said Philip Larkin, “but when I grew up I realised it was just children I didn’t like.”

So why are things so bad now?
Economically, the young have no chance of catching up with their elders. UK house prices have quadrupled over the past 30 years, while average household income has barely risen by half in the same period. To put it another way, in 1990 a house cost about two years’ salary. By 2020 it was more like six years. In 1997, 55% of those aged 25-34 owned a home, but 20 years later only 35% were on the ladder. The average age of a first-time buyer has risen to 33.

How did it get this way?
Governments tend to favour old people because they vote and there are more of them. In 2019 74% of over-65s turned out to vote, compared to just 47% of those aged 18-24. And there are twice as many voters over 65 as there are under 25. So we end up with policies that favour the old at the expense of the young. Building more houses in the green belt, for example, would make a big difference to young people by taking some of the froth out of the London housing market. But oldies will never vote for it because it might spoil the view. And it’s the young who will at some point have to pay for the triple-locked, gold-plated pensions promised to the old, even though they earn less than their elders did and have to spend more of their salary on rent.

Isn’t anything better for the young?
Cheap flights and ready access to avocados spring to mind. But the poor old young can’t enjoy this stuff. They’re too busy worrying about the carbon footprint of their city breaks and food. The old have wrecked the environment and it’s the conscientious young who will have to fix it.

How has the pandemic affected this?
It has made things worse. Almost two-thirds of those who lost their jobs due to Covid were under the age of 25. To get back to pre-pandemic youth employment levels by October, Britain would have to create and fill 1,000 jobs a day. But the government’s efforts so far have been woeful. The £2bn Kickstart scheme, which ministers claimed would create 250,000 jobs for the young, has resulted in just 5,000 successful placements in the six months since it launched.

Haven’t other government support schemes helped?
Not really. Policymakers designed pandemic and furlough plans to protect those with established careers – not much use if you’ve just started an unpaid internship and are hoping to work your way up. (Thanks for the furlough scheme, Rishi, but 80% of nothing is still nothing.)

How about students?
They’re being short-changed, too, and paying dearly for it. By the time young graduates finish paying off the £9,000 a year they’ve shelled out for degrees that are now, in most cases, a series of YouTube videos and Zoom calls, they will be even further behind. It’s no better for those at school. After missing 20 weeks of classroom time, the nation’s 8.7 million children are expected to lose out on a combined £350bn in lifetime earnings, according to the IFS. That’s £40,000 a pop. And they’re the ones who will have to pay back the hundreds of billions the government has spent on its Covid response.

What about the effects of all this on mental health?
Since lockdown, more children have been admitted to hospital for mental health reasons than for all medical problems combined. A quarter of young people say they feel “unable to cope”, while more than half report feeling anxious “always or often”. Which is hardly surprising. Every time they look at Twitter or Instagram, they are bombarded with political slogans and demands that they declare their adherence to the latest orthodoxy, from the climate crisis to Black Lives Matter. One popular exhortation, “Silence is violence”, insists that anything less than constant activism is itself an act of oppression.

Haven’t the young always been more “woke” than their elders?
Up to a point. Children in the late 18th century, for example, boycotted sugar to protest slavery, even when grown-ups teased them for it. Now, though, they’re subjected to endless moral lectures. “In the field of culture,” says Iain Martin in The Times, “older generations of leftie campaigners and academics have force-fed the young a diet of social-justice, race-baiting gibberish and persuaded them that they must feel guilt of every type, be it related to race, class or gender.” The blame for this lies in the same place it belongs for damaging their economic prospects: on the shoulders of “irresponsible, spoilt” adults.