Anonymous 17th Century French Woodcut
Cross-posted on Harry’s place 30th March 2016

The recent Guardian investigation into the economic plight of younger generations in today’s Western world makes for stark reading.  Supported by the Joseph Rowntree foundation, it looks in great detail at the lack of prospects and level of inequality between those under 35 and their forebears.  Individuals outside of this age bracket seriously need to sit up and take notice of this, for their own sakes, if not those of young people.

The way our economy operates, older generations rely on an increasing number of young people, and their taxes, to provide the services they need and to help maintain economic growth.  If younger generations are not sufficiently educated and trained in order to be enabled and employable the foundations of that pyramid for the generations above will atrophy and crumble.  Everyone loses.

It’s not as if the signs weren’t there.  The 2015 Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report, Is Britain Fairer?, showed that during the recession and up to 2013, young people (defined as those under 34) suffered the biggest slide in income and employment and now face higher barriers to achieving economic independence and success than five years ago.

If members of older generations aren’t motivated to speak up for young people out of a sense of responsibility and compassion, then they should do it for selfish reasons.  For it is in everyone’s interests that members of the next generations can support themselves – and those who preceded them.   The pyramid’s base needs to be solid.

This is why those long out of school should pay attention to the ‘looming crisis’ in Further Education (FE), most recently highlighted by the cross-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report at the end of 2015.  The least we can do is provide young people with a solid, if not excellent, education, and training, so they have a fighting chance of doing well for themselves as they ride the perfect storm of combined debt, joblessness, globalisaton, demographics and rising house prices their generation faces.

The PAC report examined the declining financial health of many FE colleges. College principals told the committee that they had experienced a real-terms funding cut of 27% in the last 5 years, combined with some significant cost increases.  Declining funds can force them to make decisions that affect the life chances of learners and limit skills in the local economy.

This has meant courses have been dropped, class sizes expanded, staff not recruited and investment plans put on hold.  It’s as if the pyramid of support for the increasingly aged population of the not-too-distant future is being built on sand with no foundations.

To illustrate how serious the situation has become, the chairs of the governing bodies of 130 FE colleges called for no further funding cuts to FE in a letter to prime minister, David Cameron, last November. The chairs highlighted the parlous financial state of the sector, caused by the impact of an accumulation of funding changes.

Skills Minister Nick Boles said that the government had protected funding for further education and, “…will be increasing real-term spending by more than a third in the next five years.  Furthermore, funding for apprenticeships will have doubled since 2010.”  However, protecting a sector when it is already on its knees is not the same as stimulating and investing in it.

As a particularly topical example, the economic panel at last year’s Construction News Summit warned of the urgent need to invest in skills.  Infrastructure UK chief executive, Geoffrey Spence, said that the construction industry should target skills shortages otherwise “we won’t be able to build the infrastructure we need”.  Here we see the pyramid isn’t going to be built at all.

Aside from economics and infrastructure, the ideals and sense of compassion that we instill in the youth of today will also have a direct effect on us all in the future.  The treatment of some of our elderly people is already unacceptable and a distinct lack of political will can be sensed in preparing to look after the tsunami of senior citizens currently approaching their twilight years, with their accompanying care needs and costs.  The pyramid starts to look more like a rectangle here, or even inverted.

It feels safe to say that most people would like to receive support and compassionate treatment when they are elderly.  If we don’t adequately assist the young of today and provide them with real prospects for the future, the reality is it could haunt us when it’s our turn to be vulnerable and in need of support: financially, as the pyramid has either collapsed or never got built, and socially, as the lack of consideration and support shown to the younger generation when they needed it is volleyed back to those who withheld it from them.

Whether we have children of our own and contribute to future generations or not, it is the youth of today who will be powering and running the society we live in once elderly.  Creating a more supportive and nurturing atmosphere now might also contribute toward discouraging qualified people from emigrating and decimating the pyramid yet further.

By properly investing in young people, by providing adequate education, mentoring, vocational training and high-quality apprenticeships – and demonstrating compassionate behaviour – not only can we help ensure that young people are equipped and there is enough in the kitty to provide for the needs of all sections of society in the future.  We can also help foster a more cohesive and empathetic society in a world with more people and fewer resources.  If not, the spectre of past actions could return to bite us on the bedpan.