Living Off Tips to Survive Another Internship: Millennials’ Inheritance is Rising Inequality

David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010 saying we were ‘all in this together’. It was a call for national unity, and a promise that everybody would share the burden of fixing the government’s finances. Five years on, that promise rings hollow.

The British economy is chugging along with a tepid recovery, but in a time of food banks and funding cuts there is an irrepressible sense that things aren’t quite as rosy as we’re led to believe. While the wealth of the richest 1% doubles, the average worker has suffered the steepest drop in living standards since World War II.

The larger our social divides grow, the harder it becomes to cross them

It is no exaggeration to repeat again and again, then, that inequality is the defining issue of our time. Once a country has become affluent – as Britain has – the amount of wealth it has pales in significance when compared to the way it distributes that wealth. This exposes its core values, and makes all the difference between citizens either having fair life chances, or becoming stranded on opposing sides of a gulf between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

That gulf of inequality has become ever more stark in the UK. As we head into the future, it is the Millennial generation – those born between 1980 and 2000 – who are set to suffer most from it. The larger our social divides grow, the harder it becomes to cross them. Archaic notions of ‘those at the top in their place, those at the bottom in theirs’ risk being again accepted as norms.

This doesn’t exactly set the stage for everybody having an opportunity to prosper. To give one example, rising child poverty has been coupled with decreasing social mobility and, as it stands, the odds of a child who qualifies for free school meals going on to study at Oxbridge is 2,000-1 – compare that to the 1,000-1 odds of Bono being elected Pope.

Present generations are coming of age at a time when, unless someone stands to inherit wealth, the chances of them moving beyond the economic environment they were born into are increasingly remote.

Under-25s face the most instability in the workplace, for instance. They are least likely to be unionised and, speaking as a 22 year old, a secure working contract (i.e. one that isn’t zero hours) has started to feel like the stuff of legend. The restaurant I work in is filled with graduates hoping to earn enough tips to see them through their latest unpaid internship, while the street I live on is filled with twenty and even thirty-somethings stuck with their parents, unable to fumble their way onto the housing ladder.

Meanwhile, David Cameron’s plans to make NEETs (young people not in employment, education or training) carry out community service feels like an attempt to force people into work that isn’t there. Just consider the lack of skilled apprenticeships – for too long my nearest colliery, which closed in the 70s and is now the site of a Sports Direct, has presented a bleak image of the void of industry being filled with nothing but insecure jobs.

Rubbing salt into the wound is the supposition that we live in a meritocracy. Class has flown out of the window, meaning that anybody can climb the ladder to wealth and prosperity. If you’re in the upper echelons then congratulations, you must be the most hardworking go-getter out there – pass ‘Go’ and collect £200. If you’re still sat at the bottom of the ladder, well then, you’re clearly just not working hard enough.

Rubbing salt into the wound is the supposition that we live in a meritocracy

There’s an obvious appeal to this tough, ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mentality. Ultimately, however, it is what allows dramatic differences between the richest and poorest to be justified. By overlooking the massive extent to which social and economic background still impair young people’s prospects, we effectively tell those with nothing that they deserve nothing better.

As those at the bottom are continually maligned, any demand to level the grotesque inequalities facing them dissipates. A war against the welfare state can be easily waged, irrespective of the damage that this wreaks upon struggling families. With predictions indicating that today’s children will be the first in centuries to fare worse than their parents, the impact of this damage can hardly be overstated.

The aim isn’t to start an intergenerational spat. Inequality cuts right through societies and, by going hand-in-hand with other social problems such as crime and ill health, it works to the detriment of all age groups. Young millennials aren’t necessarily the worst-off in modern Britain. Rather, they are the first to experience a staggering new level of inequality that, if not tackled, will become entrenched.

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