Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Great expectations?

"The job for life is dead; long live the job for life".
This was the slogan on advertisements a management consultancy firm had taken on the underground back in the late nineties, possibly early 2000s. I remember them distinctly as a teenager riding the tube. British advertising is a thing of wonder, and these ads tapped into the ambient Zeitgeist with dreadful precision. The changing nature of London's job market for young people was sufficiently topical that it had made its way into the mind of a teenage boy still at least half a decade from his first "real job".
"The job for life is dead; long live the job for life". A rebuttal to a debate that was occupying the op-ed columns of the broadsheet newspapers. An attempt to make the uncertainty of job prospects for young graduates into an opportunity. A warning that things had changed. Nearly 20 years ago, yet it could have been written yesterday.
I had a long conversation with a friend of mine today. He's several years older than me, a late genXer where I am an early millennial. He's Californian, but has lived in the UK for nearly ten years. I've now lived in the US for nearly six. We regularly trade notes on each other's countries, attempting to help each other understand their idiosyncrasies. You can live in a place many years as an adult, yet still find its inhabitants hard to understand sometimes. Today he helped me realise something: part of that is due to the emotional impact of formative experiences from youth which shape what people come to expect from life, what they do. And here, I think, lies a major faultline in how American and British young people view the world.
There is much talk of the entitlement of the millennial generation in the US from Boomers and gen X ers. Conversely, Millennials will regularly point out that their start in life is hard, burdened with student debt and the worst job market in living memory. I have little patience for older generations berating younger. Historically, it's not generally a position that has shown itself to have much merit. Each generation comes to being with certain expectations and certain baggage, and deals with it as best it can. My mother's (late greatest) generation faced challenges I can barely imagine, but benefited from an economic miracle I will never experience. My brother and sister (late gen X ers) benefitted from a welfare state far more generous that I will, yet have had the middle of their careers hard hit by the financial crash. Me? I grew up in a globalised world, trained and poised to take advantage of all that had to offer. Yet I would have no security. Ever. I would have to be permanently on the move, getting better, hunting new opportunities. No rest, no relaxation. I learnt that lesson before I ever went to university, looking at those posters on underground carriages, learning what my professional life would be. Precarity framed as opportunity for growth, again, and again, and again.
The UK when I was growing up was in its post Thatcherite heyday. New Labor, Cool Britannia, Britain relevant on the world stage again. What the past few years have laid bare was how much of a sham that all was. Long term observers had noted it: the manufacturing regions ravaged by decades of failed industrial policy before being brutally culled by Thatcher never recovered. Instead, something else was created, a place that has virtually become synonymous with everything that's wrong with the UK today: London. And those adverts I mentioned were the ethos of the city I grew up in. Hustle, hustle every day all the time. There is nothing else to do, nothing else to build.
London's post thatcherite growth had never been predicted by her government, nor the sudden explosion of the UK financial sector, driven by a glut of foreign capital from increasingly unsavory locations. I suspect now that, in the aftermath of the winter of discontent and the destruction of most of the country's economy, the attitude that developed in London was one of Post apocalyptic survival. We had somehow made it out. In fact we were doing better than ever, Yet, deep down, we knew this was down to luck, and we suspected it would not last. After all, everyone else was screwed, when would the other shoe drop?
Thus, when I went to university, I already knew that I was playing a game. I knew the odds were stacked against me. I knew the name of my university was my way of stacking the deck back in my favor. I expected nothing from the world of employment (when I went there after my masters), other than a paycheck that would be insufficient to let me live. And I suspect that teenagers in the rest of the country, who didn't even have the fever dream of finance doped London to look to, were even more cynical.
What I have come to realise is that I don't think anything as traumatic happened in the US until much later. The dot com boom and the Asian financial crisis didn't eradicate entire sectors of the economy for good. Outsourcing was a more gradual process, rather than the traumatic destruction of the entirety of heavy industry in the UK in just a few years. Even the automobile industry in Detroit limped along until 2007. Britain's car industry ended in national ignominy in 2005, after an agonising decade long decline. Thus, an American teenager my age would never have encountered with such force the message I saw on that tube train.
This explains what I cannot help but perceive as a certain naivety from recent American college graduates. As they work for years as bartenders, baristas, and so on, as they are paid peanuts for short term jobs, or working unpaid internships for experience, they express a sense of betrayal, an idea that they had been promised more. To my 90's London upbringing, this seems hopelessly naïve.
In the UK, it was my brother's generation, graduating in the late 90s, who went through those growing pains, the certainties of an older world order swept away. My generation of young Brits has never expected anything from the world, other than a sunny slogan to hide a grim reality. In that way, we truly are the children of Blair.

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