Stop whingeing – Britain’s youths have never had it so good

Generation Y should stop feeling sorry for themselves, and get on with it, says Matthew Lynn.

If you read all the press coverage, you'd find it hard to believe life could get worse for Generation Y. The youngsters born in the 1980s and 1990s appear to have no end of problems and not just trying to decide whether to buy the iPhone 5 or the Galaxy S4.

They are stuck at home with their parents because they can't afford overpriced houses. They are burdened with the cost of an education their parents got for free. There are few jobs available and they have to sweat as unpaid interns for years to get on the career ladder. And through taxes they have to subsidise their grandparents' free bus passes and winter fuel allowances even though the 60-somethings have more money than them.

But in reality, this generation has a much easier time of it than either Generation X or the Baby Boomers. And they in turn had easier lives than their parents back in the days before generations were alphabet-coded. That hasn't stopped yet another report this week from laying out the problems faced by today's 20-somethings. According to the National Housing Federation, a "jilted generation" is being created that can neither afford to buy a house, nor pay spiralling rents. More than 3.5 million young people will be living with their parents by the end of the decade, it argued.

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It adds to a growing pile of reports that suggest this generation is uniquely hard done-by. There is some truth in this. In some ways their life is harder than it was for earlier generations. Housing has become tougher to afford because planning restrictions stop enough houses being built. A university education now costs serious money, whereas the state used to provide one for free. Companies routinely expect new graduates to intern with them before offering them a job, when two decades ago they would have offered them paid work straight away. And their taxes will be higher after an endless series of politicians cynically bought their way to re-election by running up big bills that generations to come will have to repay. Add it all together, and a picture emerges of a generation that has it harder than we did.

Yet it is hard to see how its problems are unique. Every generation has challenges to face. The Baby Boomers dealt with the great inflation of the 1970s. The oil price hikes, 20%-plus inflation, and the three-day week of the miner's strike of the early 1970s, were hardly an easy time. Likewise, Generation X had to deal with the great industrial restructuring of the 1980s and the deep recession of the early 1990s. There weren't many jobs available to anyone graduating in the early years of Mrs Thatcher's administration and those that were available were not well-paid.

Go back further and life was even tougher. The generation that went through World War II hardly had things easy. The young people who fought their way through World War I and then lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s were hardly blessed. That is not to say that every generation has things better than the last one. The late Victorians, for example, had a much better time of it than the early Edwardians the world was an exceptionally peaceful and prosperous place at the end of the 19th century, and went steadily downhill for 50 years afterwards. Some generations find life getting better, others worse the issue is to get some perspective.

In reality, Generation Y has it pretty good, at least in Britain. In the eurozone, the story is different. In Spain and Greece, whole generations are facing adulthood with no realistic prospect of ever finding a job. But in Britain it is hard to see how young people have much to moan about.

True, they have to intern for a long time and that can be tough if you do not have parents willing to help you. But at least there are jobs available. British employment levels are hitting all-time highs. The digital economy, in which Britain is second only to America, is creating new opportunities all the time. The internet enables young entrepreneurs to become multi-millionaires before they hit 30 those were not opportunities available to the Baby Boomers. True, they have to pay for their education. But far more young people can get a degree. The reason their parents got a free education was that so few people went to university. It might cost more, but there is more opportunity as well.

Housing is an issue. But if Generation Y wants to do something about this, it should campaign for the green belts around our major cities to be ripped up. If planning laws were relaxed, far more houses would be built immediately lowering the cost of housing. Over time the problem will fix itself anyway. Older people will die eventually, freeing up their houses for their children. Not owning a house until they are 50 rather than 30 is hardly the worst thing that has ever happened.

Most lobby groups arguing Generation Y is hard done-by are, in reality, arguing for higher taxes on the middle-aged and the elderly. But our 20-somethings have it as easy as any earlier generation and probably easier. They should stop feeling sorry for themselves and get on with it.

Matthew Lynn

Matthew Lynn is a columnist for Bloomberg, and writes weekly commentary syndicated in papers such as the Daily Telegraph, Die Welt, the Sydney Morning Herald, the South China Morning Post and the Miami Herald. He is also an associate editor of Spectator Business, and a regular contributor to The Spectator. Before that, he worked for the business section of the Sunday Times for ten years. 

He has written books on finance and financial topics, including Bust: Greece, The Euro and The Sovereign Debt Crisis and The Long Depression: The Slump of 2008 to 2031. Matthew is also the author of the Death Force series of military thrillers and the founder of Lume Books, an independent publisher.