The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
The ‘generation gap’ is not a new phenomenon. The above quotation has been variously attributed to Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero and Hesiod. Others find its origins in a medieval monastery, or engraved on an Assyrian cuneiform tablet, or written on an ancient Egyptian papyrus. In fact (or at least according to ‘Quote Investigator‘), it derives from the dissertation of a Cambridge student by the name of Kenneth John Freeman, and, far from being ancient wisdom, was penned as recently as 1907. But it doesn’t matter: Freeman encapsulates perfectly the essence of intergenerational conflict, and the quotation “fills a niche”, as Quote Investigator accepts.
It is usually the senior generation which tolerates the obnoxious attitudes of the youngsters, for the passing years bring with them a greater capacity to endure with a cool sigh and persevere with the resigned tut-tut of infinite patience. Teenagers do what teenagers do, and adults despair and vent their prejudices to one another over a coffee, pint, or a glass of Chardonnay.
You would think that politicians might do all they can to mitigate intergenerational conflict. After all, when the youth are pressed to revolt, the cultural upheaval has social consequences and economic costs, which politicians then have to sort out. If young people have neither job nor home; if they are devoid of prospect and hope, they must apportion blame. The fault may well be theirs, but certain mental-emotional discrepancies, often born of hormonal asymmetries, can cloud judgment. And so their values adjust to the new context of narcissism, self and greed. Or perhaps that’s a cynical Tory cosmology.
Speaking of cynical Tories, George Osborne’s budget had its good points, its bad points, and its baffling points. The announcement of a National Living Wage (7.20/hr) that is not actually a living wage (£9.15/hr in London and £7.85/hr in the rest of the UK) is the sort of dim politics that fosters bitterness, doubt and distrust. If the Conservative Party must intervene to regulate the market to the extent that no work is better than lowly-paid work, then they ought at the very least to satisfy definitions and fulfil expectations. And why make it available only to the over-25s?
With consent, a boy may marry at 16. So may a girl. They may start a family, play the lottery, consent to medical treatment, and leave the parental home with or without consent. For some youngsters, that may be a necessity, for not all young people hug their mums or go fishing with dad. They may also work full-time. At 18 a man may do all of this and a whole lot more. So may a woman. So why does the Chancellor of the Exchequer create a further arbitrary threshold at 21 and another at 25? Has he really forgotten what it was like to be young? Being in the elite Bullingdon, did he never experience need?
The ‘earn or learn’ mantra is a good conservative ethic. It cannot be right that anyone – of whatever generation – should feel they deserve to live a life on welfare, courtesy of the taxpayer who happens to earn less than those who decide to have eight children and then demand a five-bedroomed house in leafy Hampstead. Benefits should be capped, and there ought to be sanctions against the serial abusers. But what about the youngster in a hostel, forced to flee a derelict den of skunk, coke, vodka and regular beatings? Where does he go when his housing benefit is cut? Onto the streets? What about the young girl fleeing FGM, or the sixth-form boy trying to avoid being packed off to Pakistan for an ‘assisted’ marriage? If the non-living new-minumum wage is set at £7.20, by what moral reasoning is it to be withheld from any under-25s? They don’t all have parents in million-pound houses who might look forward to a tax-free inheritance.
For conservatives, young people are the future guardians of the vast cultural repository of all that is good, noble, beautiful, just and true. They are to be nurtured with liberal virtue and inculcated with democratic morality. For Conservatives to alienate a whole generation with the slur of indolence and the imputation of workshy egoism is to heap anxiety and despair upon some of society’s most fragile, traumatised and lonely. As if it weren’t bad enough that they’ll be forced to pick up the tab for the debts run up by their parents and grandparents, today’s youngsters are bearing the brunt of an intergenerational injustice.
George Osborne may be the next leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. He ought not to take for granted the old adage that “If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.” This has been variously attributed to Disraeli, Shaw, Churchill, and Bertrand Russell. But it doesn’t matter: it encapsulates perfectly the essence of intergenerational political antagonism. If today’s youth sense a lack of intergenerational fairness in the Conservative Party, their hearts and brains will simply seek justice in another place.