The other deficit
by Dan Leighton
The release of this week’s growth figures has momentarily thrown the Coalition Government’s deficit reduction strategy in disarray. Yet the most powerful justification for cutting hard and fast has always been premised on a long-term argument about intergenerational justice. As the Deputy PM put it the week before the 2010 Spending Review: “Tackling the deficit means wiping the slate clean for the next generation. It means ensuring that our children do not pay the price for this generation’s mistakes”.
Yet, with record youth unemployment feeding fears of a “lost generation” and high profile protests around cuts to education, more should be done to find effective mechanisms for elevating the voices of young people in the political process. At Demos we felt this was highly symbolic of another deficit: the deficit in political capital possessed by today’s young people.
Our new report Back to the Future provides a detailed snapshot of what young people think about the deficit and the choices they would make in addressing it. It was the result of the Young People’s Convention on the Deficit, held by Demos and The Co-operative on the weekend before the Spending Review. This workshop of 16–18-year-olds was the first time young people not eligible to vote in the 2010 general election were invited to formally express their views and deliberate on the fundamental political issue of our times.
Throughout they showed healthy doses of pragmatism, scepticism and public spiritedness. They don’t buy the ratio of cuts to tax rises being pursued by the Coalition; yet when asked to make trade offs between themselves and older generations they still want to make sure that older people are protected from the brunt of the cuts.
The participants at the convention saw themselves as being potentially the worst affected by spending cuts, not least because they perceived politicians to take less notice of the views of young people than those of older generations. The possibility of cuts to further and higher education were seen as emblematic of this wider neglect. In table discussions apprehensions about the abolition of the education maintain allowance (EMA) figured nearly as prominently as those concerning increases in tuition fees.
Perhaps the most troubling finding from the research concerns the gap between young people’s generally positive outlooks on the future and the less than sunny reality they may face in five or ten years time. If the considerable economic and social challenges of tomorrow are to be overcome, far greater weight must be given to the attitudes, concerns and values of young people today. For this to happen, young people need to be given the political capital to break into the vast set of political decisions currently reserved for adults: taxation, public spending, housing and jobs among them. In other words, precisely the type of decisions that lay at the heart of the Spending Review itself.