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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Grumpy Young Man

Monday, September 07, 2009

Although it has had many casualties, last night I realised at a comedy gig that the recession has been great for comedians, providing a rich vein of material. One comedian joked that in the present crisis, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, looks a bit like the weedy kid at school who wants to be on the cricket team. He is finally handed the bat, whilst every other player scarpers, knowing that the window behind him has just been broken.

I could laugh last night. This time last week, however, was one of the most stressful periods I have been through since I finished my PhD. As I blogged about recently, I've been waiting on the (forever delayed) outcome of a job interview for an academic post. Meanwhile, my partner was about to learn whether she would be made redundant. On Friday, I finally learned I had landed the position, whilst my partner was kept on in her employment. Hence the comedy, when it could so easily have been tears.

For myself and my partner, things have worked out well, but that jest about the kid left holding the cricket bat is one that reaches towards a truth for my generation in general. Whilst people in their 40s and 50s may have made money and good homes on the rising housing ladder and stock markets, the younger generation have been left at the bottom, struggling to climb on the rungs of safe jobs and safe houses. And yet, with the windows now broken in credit crunch, with the world warming and non-renewable resources depleting, it is the young who are expected to fix the broken environmental and financial systems that the baby boomer generation have created.

Perhaps it was with a slight sense of guilt about this that in the United Kingdom New Labour, led by its middle aged, middle England, average Joe (nee Tony), came to power in 1997. New Labour pledged to address the social, income and environmental inequalities that had been generated by Thatcherism. The engineer for this change was an echo: "Education, education, education." Labour promised to get half of school leavers into Higher Education, the reasoning being that better education leads to better paid jobs which in turn leads to a more equable society. Although I was convinced that student loans - which Labour introduced in order to fund the expansion of higher education - would be counter-productive and put the poorest students off from applying to university, and although I worried that with so many gaining degrees employers would be unable to discriminate between good and weaker graduates, at the time I agreed with the principle that university education should not be the privilege of a select few but be open to all.

However, as a recent PhD graduate emerging from my study into the present world crunched by credit and a decade from environmental disaster, I cannot help but wonder whether my generation has not been sold a bit of a pipe dream by its middle-aged leaders. Though I have enjoyed every minute of my university life, is education really going to be the panacea it was promised to be? Are degrees really the best medicine that the young can take to heal the problems created by the older generation? A report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency last week showed that a quarter of graduates are not in full-time employment three years after graduating, whilst one fifth of graduates are in jobs that do not require a degree. As the recession bites, one-in-ten graduates from the class of 2009 will still be jobseeking in six months time. This will be the first group to have paid the full £3000 tuition fees for their education. They will be the most indebted, least employed - but best educated - generation ever.

Last week, my partner and myself got lucky, though we were told that luck should not come into it: get a degree, and that safe job with good income is guaranteed. However, the statistics cited above - one in ten, one in five - tell the story that the lottery is in play for many other, less lucky but talented, graduates.

Yet what has struck me during the stress of my personal life and of the national news is how student life is very isolated from the bigger picture of economics and politics. Like, I suspect, many of the class of 2009 feel, I feel like I have been asleep for the last seven years of academic work, and now the "real world" is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

As a dormant PhD student, although I regularly shouted at the radio news, I always felt somewhat detached from the world of economics and housing markets, which were theoretical spheres in which I did not move. After all, as a graduate researcher I lived off a small income, and was going to have to do so throughout my PhD. It was good to discuss in the pub whether nurses were underpaid or whether inflation was too high; but with a disposable income and overdraft stuck at zero, such discussions were purely abstract, irrelevant to my own life. So long as I could buy bread and milk, and heat my house, I was going to be just fine. The smug chatter about skyrocketing house prices and loft extensions discussed over bottles of Merlot across middle England passed me by. I had no chance of getting a mortgage, so house prices were irrelevant. The pensions time bomb was a bit of a damp squib; I did not even have an income, let alone the ability to divert some of it into a pot for retirement. As a left-winger, I saw income tax as unqualifiedly the best way of redistributing wealth to the poorest in society.

Now, though, as the highlight of my life is to receive a pay slip every month, the world seems a little different, and economic issues start to matter greatly. As a taxpayer, especially one whose partner works with the long-term unemployed, suddenly income tax does not seem quite so perfect an instrument of social change. As I now own a car, inflation hits me every time I pass a petrol pump. Whilst I agreed with the expansion of higher education as a student, as a graduate who chose to continue in education rather than enter work the interest on my student loan has increased by £1500 over the last few years. Last year, I managed to pay off a healthy £6 of interest, let alone any of the capital. Diversifying higher education is a great idea - but do I have to be the one to pay for it?

The economic world matters - and unlike when I was a student, this time it's personal. The comic I saw last night really did sum up the sense of bewilderment I feel. I did not make the world in which mortgages are impossible to obtain. I did not burn the carbon now clotting the atmosphere. And yet I find myself left standing in this sort of world, whilst my parent's generation looks on from behind net curtains in unmortgaged houses, hoping I am going to be able to put their mistakes right.

But my first person "I" may be a false one. I am not alone. I am one of a generation of young, talented graduates who may be in debt and out of work, but which does have an education and skills behind them. I originally wrote this blog post for a website which hosts several thousand committed early-career researchers, studying climate change and stock market behaviour and social justice. So please, fellow graduates of 2009, tell me to stop being so pessimistic. Tell me I'm wrong to feel resentful about the older generation. Tell me we can set things straight. Tell me I'm not holding the cricket bat alone.

[This is a modified cross-post from the Graduate Junction blog.]

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Posted by Alistair at 11:21 am


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