Young people can criticise Thatcher as much as anyone
It’s fair to say the outrage against those celebrating Thatcher’s death has been simultaneously immense, orchestrated, and unsurprising. Much of it centres on the fact that, as an article in last week’s ‘i’ newspaper stated, ‘the majority of those celebrating…were not old enough to remember the Iron Lady’s reign’. But regardless of the ethics of grave-dancing, why should young people be excluded from having opinions on the rule of one of the most influential – and arguably devastating – politicians of the 20th century?
We live in a world moulded by Thatcherism – the individualist logic of self-interest, manifesting itself politically as a programme of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation. The impact of Thatcher on young people today can’t be underestimated.
I’ll start with the most obvious. Trade union membership. Working people – including young people – in 1979 were organised. 13.5 million Brits were union members. Upon her exit, that had shrunk to 8.5 million after the whole-scale privatisation of utilities, and the crushing of the (largely Northern) miners and dockers. Now, just a quarter of workers are in trade unions – and just a tenth of 16-24 year olds. It’s no surprise then, that young people are now probably the most systematically exploited demographic in Britain, working zero-hours contracts to be fired on a whim. Our generation is precarious, teetering from one short-term job to the next – when we can find work.
Thatcher ushered in the era of mass unemployment. The ending of the social democratic consensus brought with it the long dole queues, which despite being by no means unknown in pre-Thatcher years, became accepted and normalised. At the peak of Labour’s so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’, unemployment was at 1.1m – a figure we could only dream of now. Under Thatcher it doubled to peak at over 3m. Who does unemployment hit the hardest? Those with least experience, in most likelihood – the young. Around a million young people are now unemployed – around the same as the total ‘Winter of Discontent’ figure. You read that right. Thanks, Thatcherism.
Of course, despite our very serious worries as uni students, they are trivial compared to some of our generation. Those not wishing – or unable – to go to university are plagued by the decimation of manufacturing which used to provide stable and reliable employment to working-class kids after school. Going from around 18% of the economy in 1979 to less than 10% today, the systematic destruction of our manufacturing base to undermine the unions has led to a crisis of youth unemployment, especially for those not expecting to go into higher education.
It’s in housing that young people are currently hurting the most, were there to be a rather macabre scale of modern miseries. The property obsession Thatcherism stimulated culminated in her deregulation of the mortgage market – a partial cause of both the unsustainable property bubble of the 2000s and the 2008 financial crash. It also led to unfulfilled aspirations. 88% of people today aged 18 to 30 still say they want to own their own home in the next 10 years. Most of these know it’s a pipe-dream. And with a massively depleted social housing stock due to the Right to Buy policy, there are no truly affordable homes to fill the gap. Millions are on waiting lists. An IPPR report in 2012 recognised the problem for this generation – ‘housing under-supply – in combination with a number of other social, economic and cultural forces – is having real and substantial effects on the lived experience and future aspirations of young people‘.
These problems are just a few of those faced today by our generation, which were in large part due to, or exacerbated by, the policies of the Thatcher governments of the 80s. Post-Thatcher governments have failed to turn away from a services and finance dominated economy which offer the wonderful polarity of McDonalds – for us – or RBS, for the new elites.
This isn’t to go into the many mental health problems caused by an all-permeating ideology of greed, consumerism and privatised space, where billboards and the media daily sell us more insecurities which can be solved – at a cost, and temporarily – by the latest fad. Young people today are raised on such insecurities, which are added to the list of material worries discussed before.
I think it’s safe to say young people have a better claim than many to criticise her. We live in a world partly of her making. We are acutely hit by increasingly precarious work (when we can get it), increasingly unattainable housing, and by the decline of communities which once offered refuge and comfort when you were in trouble. I won’t say party on, Brixton revelers. I won’t say download ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’. But hold some kind of opinion. We owe that much to the first generation hit by her policies – the miners of Orgreave, the dockers of Liverpool, the pit communities surrounding York. Celebrate her death if you want – but more importantly, get organised. Because this government is carrying out policies Thatcher could only have dreamed of getting away with.
This article first appeared here in The Yorker newspaper.