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‘Now, work is the end in itself, a performance rather than a contract.’ A Deliveroo rider in Paris, April 2017. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters
‘Now, work is the end in itself, a performance rather than a contract.’ A Deliveroo rider in Paris, April 2017. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Generation spite: is that really how we want our kids to remember us?

We scapegoat and impoverish young people while destroying the world we older, luckier ones inherited. As abdications of duty go, this one is absolute

In 1780, on a visit to Paris to secure French support for the American revolution, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife. In it he penned what would become some of his most famous words. “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematics and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematics and Philosophy, geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”

Two hundred-odd years later, my own mum confided in me one of her deepest concerns for the state of the society she saw around her: “We’ve become afraid of our own children.”

Wanting to leave a better world for future generations is a basic desire. Our struggles ought to be final, our political and social battles won, in order that our children will not have to fight them again. And yet the year 2017 sees both them and us agreed on one thing: the next generation will be worse off than their parents.

Our political decisions seem designed to punish the young. Yet when young people call us on it, we turn on them with spite and malice: “Grow up, snowflakes! What you need is a good war. We never had your advantages – it never did us any harm.” Of course, to believe that last one you have to believe that people attacking their own children for wanting a better life is something that healthy and undamaged people do.

The precariat class swells, year on year, and it’s young people who make up the bulk of it. Jobs that would have been considered solid a decade ago are now looked down on as mere stepping stones to “real” work. Cleaning, driving, even selling goods to other people are regarded as “unreal work” that you shouldn’t expect to pay well or even at all. These jobs are there for you to learn “job skills”: show up 15 minutes before they start paying you, don’t mention pesky rights such as safety or discrimination. Play ball and maybe one day you can get one of the ever decreasing stock of “real” jobs.

There used to be a material underpinning to the Protestant work ethic. Labour was how you obtained the means to survive, so the virtues of hard work and discipline were important because they would enable you to obtain these means. Now, work is the end in itself, a performance rather than a contract. Wages are a luxury, and the idea that they should be high enough to live on, let alone save for the future, is apparently hopelessly unrealistic socialism.

Against this backdrop, the tabloids reacted to the news of a snap election with frothing anger. “Saboteurs!” the Daily Mail screamed, tumescent with rage against anyone who would dare to challenge its worldview of constant, endless immiseration for everyone it views as unworthy. But who are those saboteurs? Who are the “enemies of the people”, those traitors who have apparently done us so much harm that we must uproot them from our nation? In large part, they’re our children, whom we now fear, whom we blame for our own mistakes, and whom we have decided to punish, to teach them a lesson, to “show them how the world really works”.

The “real world” works that way, though, because we have chosen to make it so. The purpose of society, from its origins as basic tribal units to our globalised cities, is to be less unforgiving than the raw state of nature. Yes, it’s our right to complain that “kids these days” have it easy, but we didn’t grow up killing wolves with sharp sticks either, did we? We earn the right to be moaning old farts only because we put the work in to make it happen. That our kids have it easier than us is a sign we did our jobs right. If we instead work to make it harder for them, this is an absolute abdication of our duty.

What do we even gain from this? As with every other scapegoating effort, when the powerful encourage you to hate “those people”, they mean you too. It may feel good in the moment to wallow in anger against your enemies, but loyalty in such matters is only one way. We vote out of anger: to punish the scroungers, the strangers, those who have conspired with the passage of time to steal our youth for themselves. Then we react with bafflement when, time after time, someone turns the weapons we gave them back on us. “Not me!” we scream. “Those people. Take my kids. Take my neighbours. I didn’t mean me, I meant them.”

As our children grow up over the next couple of decades, do we really want their memory of us to be of a spiteful generation, spitting venom at young people we hold in contempt while systematically destroying the world our parents built for us simply so that they wouldn’t have a chance to live in it? Do we really want them to remember that we hated the idea of their happiness and comfort so much that we clubbed together to strip it away? What a miserable legacy that would be.

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