L CartwrightNeoliberal policymaking is behind many of the problems facing young people in the UK and across the EU, including debt, job insecurity, and housing. Yet discussions about structural issues are excluded from the referendum debate, argues Laura Cartwright, and so voters are missing the bigger picture of what causes these problems. Without an understanding of what keeps young people from reaching their full potential, any discussions about being ‘in’ or ‘out’ are meaningless.

With only days to go until the EU referendum, it’s worrying that studies show many British voters are still woefully uninformed about exactly how the EU functions; an Ipsos Mori poll in from the end of May found that the public are ‘still very shaky on fundamental aspects of our relationship with the EU’.

As the date rapidly approaches, a growing number of memes and status ‘rants’ from Leave campaigners are flooding social media, seeking to apportion blame on the European Union for a myriad of the social, economic and political problems. Such memes lament the collapse of British industry, the rise of precarious work, the over-inflation of the housing market and the fragility of the NHS as direct results of ‘EU rules’ and our membership of the Union itself.

Much that is shared consists of emotionally-charged scaremongering and misappropriated statistics, raising serious questions as to how the public are able to make a critical and well- informed decision. But amidst the ‘Project Fear’ approach of both the Leave and Remain camps, voters are being distracted from a far more important issue: neoliberalism.


The ‘IPOD’ generation

The neoliberal idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to reconfiguring society around the ethic of the free market has seldom been confronted by any of the mainstream political parties that have held power since 1979. And yet in 2016, some eight years on from the start of the ‘Great Recession’, questions are now being raised by researchers at the IMF itself on the ability of neoliberalism to improve the living standards of the vast majority of the population.

Neoliberal policy has transformed the labour market via the residualisation of collective organisation, the globalisation of labour and outsourcing of work to emerging economies, ‘light-touch’ labour management, a rise in precarious forms of work and sustained higher levels of unemployment. It has transformed education, through increased focus on performance measurement, league tables, routine testing, and the creation of a market in the expanded higher education sector which sees students now repositioned as ‘consumers’ and beginning their careers saddled with debts of up to £44,000. It has contributed to the current crisis in affordable housing. The ‘right to buy’ depleted the stock of social housing, slashing budgets and investment in new homes. The liberalisation of mortgage lending in favour of the private rental sector has enabled the trading of homes as financial assets, pushing up prices beyond the affordability of most first time buyers.

All of these changes have impacted most significantly upon one particular group: young people. Those born after 1979 have lived the entirety of their lives within this new social landscape as education, labour and housing were transformed. Studies have shown that the ‘IPOD generation’ (Insecure, Pressurised, Over-taxed and Debt-ridden) have grown up at a time of rapid change and, whilst they have benefitted from developments in information technology and cheaper commodities, the certainties and safety-nets that their parents’ generation enjoyed are gradually being eroded.

My own research, looking at the impact of precarious employment on young people’s transitions to adulthood, found a dispiriting set of conditions faced by this generation. They face a ‘perfect storm’: a highly flexible and global labour market, an annual oversupply of qualified labour, and a polarised job market that appears to be increasingly driven by an expansion of precarious forms of work. Sustained high unemployment, government-imposed austerity and the recent economic downturn have served only to worsen an already difficult situation. In addition, the crisis in housing affordability, insufficient pension savings and increasing personal debt exposes young people to a substantial degree of risk and insecurity that may well continue into their thirties and forties. The young people I spoke to were in effect, ‘swimming against the tide’.

Precarious transitions, diminishing prospects?

If young people are faced with tougher conditions and diminishing prospects in comparison to their parents, as some research now suggests, surely we should be questioning and critiquing the national, and international policymaking that is facilitating this? After all, the issues facing young people today are not specific to the UK.

Although youth transitions to adulthood across Europe are far from homogenous, they have generally become more problematic and protracted as a result of neoliberal policymaking. Research clearly shows that across the 28 EU member states, the recession has disproportionately affected young people, particularly in terms of employment prospects. A crisis in affordable housing has also been felt across the continent, high rents, lack of social housing and difficulties in getting on the housing ladder has led to a steep rise in the number of 18-34 year olds being forced to live with their parents, with figures as high as 66 per cent in Italy and 58 per cent in Portugal. With such similar issues facing young people across many parts of Europe, it stands to reason that debates about the future of the EU and our role within it, should prioritise discussion on how policymaking can begin to address some of these systemic problems.

Joining the dots

In his book, ‘Why Voice Matters – Culture and Politics after Neoliberalism‘, Nick Couldry argued that neoliberalism operates by rendering social life ‘un-narratable’. Such a process distorts the connections and relationships between different aspects of social, political and economic life, making it harder for individuals to piece together the fragments and ‘join the dots’. The instant, transient and fragmented nature of information sharing characteristic of social media platforms such as Facebook leave little space for contemplation, reflection or critique, and thus it becomes harder for us to conceive of the relationship between manifest social problems to economic and political processes and ideologies.

All of the young people I interviewed as part of my research could clearly identify the individual problems they were facing: personal debt, job insecurity, inadequate pension provision, unaffordable housing, competition for jobs, but were unable to relate these to a broader narrative nor conceive of the wider structural forces that were shaping and influencing their lives.

The giant, neoliberal-shaped ‘elephant in the room’

The absence of any discussion on neoliberalism in the referendum debate smacks of wilful ignorance from both camps, meaning that voters are left completely missing the bigger picture. The ‘Remain’ side is failing to question or critique the EU’s deep commitment to an increasingly discredited ideology which is continuing to increase inequality and stifle inter-generational mobility. The ‘Leave’ side is apportioning blame for our social, economic and political problems in the wrong place and seeking to retreat into a pre-globalised world of nation-state supremacy which no longer exists.

Unless we as citizens begin to ‘join the dots’ and start to question the cogency of a political economic doctrine which is preventing young people across Europe from reaching their full potential, discussions about being ‘in’ or ‘out’ are meaningless. As Irvine Welsh recently argued, whatever the outcome of the referendum the elites will ultimately win. Neoliberalism looks and feels the same, whether it’s imposed by those in power in the UK or the EU.

About the Author
L CartwrightLaura Cartwright is an Early Career Researcher and Teaching Assistant at the University of Leeds. Her research interests include youth transitions to adulthood, neoliberalism and precarious employment.


(Featured image: Mayuresh Walke CC BY 2.0)
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