Losing Faith

2 02 2009

[You can listen to this episode here.]

Earlier this week, for just a few brief moments, a small town in Oxfordshire became the most important place in the world. More important, even, than the White House where, the new President was signing into law his very first piece of legislation. At least, that’s the impression you will have got if you were watching any news channel on Thursday lunchtime. And, perhaps they were right. The pictures they were broadcasting were covering the funeral of Bill Stone, who died earlier this month.  


Bill is believed to have been the last remaining veteran of both the First and Second World Wars. He was born in 1900, a year before Queen Victoria died, and saw one hundred and eight years of life. I am always fascinated by people who live to such a great age. The events I read and learn about, possibly even dare to make judgements on, in the course of my history degree are not history to them. They were there. They saw it happen and it was, for them, real.


Eric Hobsbawm, an historian now in his nineties, communicated this in his typically elegant way. He said: ‘The cold winter day when Adolf Hitler came to power in Berlin, which I remember vividly, is immeasurably distant for twenty-year-olds.’


Well, the things these two gentlemen have seen in their lives, put into perspective the pressing issue in the lives of us graduates. If you believe everything that has been written about us in the last few months, you may be very concerned. The horrific scars of recession cover our bodies. We stumble from job centre to pub, weeping over our catastrophic debts and futile attempts to secure that coveted shelf-stacking job. We are  “victims”, “casualties” and will be “a constant in the dole queue”.


Less hysterically, we are those people graduating in the summer of 2009. Born in 1987 or 1988, we are children of the 30 year capitalist party started by Margaret Thatcher. But now that we’re old enough to join in, the lights have been switched off and everyone has gone home. It’s all the worse because we did everything right, getting proper qualifications, doing internships, even being subjected to “transferable skills” seminars, in order to shape our CVs into the perfect package of employability. So, should we feel downcast and wretched, cursing society for its faceless betrayal of what we were assured would be a bright future? Surely not.


Now, as twenty, or twenty-one year olds, we don’t remember a time when socialism was taken seriously in Britain. I have been told not to expect the state to care for me in old age or in times of unemployment. I have grown up knowing that market forces are what our politicians believe in; and that I may never own a house or get a decent pension. I knew this long before I applied to study for my degree.


University has been a sleepy riot, characterised by delightful inertia followed by periods of intense study and partying. I read History at the University of York, and I look back with intense satisfaction on days composed of sleeping in, reading pretentious books, writing a few articles for the student newspaper, then spending the evening drinking with friends. I have had my brain squeezed and expanded in so many ways, both intellectually and emotionally, that I find it hard to imagine how desolate life will be when I am defined by a job that I hate. Depression descends over me as I imagine my part-time holiday work writing press releases and brochures, or in telesales, becoming a permanent fixture dominating my week and consuming my time.


It is not, then, fear of the unknown. Most of us know what Work is like. Work, that is, of the spirit-sapping, pointless variety, as opposed to work, which fits in seamlessly with life and is not separate from enjoyment. Today’s graduates have been encouraged to work from the earliest possible age, regardless of their parents income, for the purposes of self-improvement and experience, or to “learn the value of money”. The latter is my own parents’ excuse for telling me to find a part-time job the moment my National Insurance card dropped through the door. I know very few people who have never had a part-time job before and during university. We are already aware of the pettiness of office life, the jumped-up managers of restaurants who hate you because you’re young and don’t want to be there, or the feeling that you are slowly dying as the fiftieth person that day slams the phone down on you as you try to sell them a product neither of you wants.


Today’s graduates are well steeped in all of this, and as a result the ones who want this life for themselves will persevere in firing off CVs to banks, management consultancies, and corporate law firms. Amongst my friends, finding a job is often the only thing they talk about, and it often feels like my third year has been taken up with applications, discussions about applications, and endless degree work. I often think that if one more person tries to talk to me about the solicitor’s training contract they are trying to secure, I may have to inflict prolonged and unnecessary pain on their bodies. Of course, it is understandable that many are anxious, and there is a certain gallows humour that goes with it. People talk cheerfully about the novelty of signing on, and a friend of mine recently wrote in his student newspaper column: “I’m sure I’m not the only one to have a picture in my mind of an unkempt tramp rather too closely resembling myself, lying on a street corner with a skinny dog, begging passers-by for a few pennies in return for performing humiliating acts”. He was recently turned down for a job with the Civil Service, despite working for a Member of Parliament every holiday.


This is a story repeated across Europe, where France and Greece have seen student protests and riots over their governments’ perceived inability to help graduates find work. Greece has a youth unemployment rate of 30%, and as a result has suffered the most serious backlash against corrupt officials who use nepotism to keep the pool of graduates they pick from small and elite. If we look at Britain, the government has recently promised to create more paid internships in partnership with companies such as Barclays and Microsoft. Unfortunately, it has yet to specify any details whatsoever, or even pledge any funding for the scheme. Interns will be paid the equivalent rate of their student loan, which for many is inadequate and, at university, must be supplemented by a part-time job. How a full-time intern will also hold down a part-time job has yet to be explained by the government. Perhaps the problem is that today’s politicians went to university for free, and got jobs at a time when a lot less than 43% of their peers held a degree. They cannot know what graduates face because their own experiences were guided along class and socioeconomic lines that have blurred today.


The economy won’t help us, politicians can’t help us, and employers don’t want to hear from us.


Well, the plight of graduates may be a very sorry one, but we are just one group of the many who are coming to terms with the impact of this recession. In fact, one of the most remarkable features of the whole shebang is that for the first time in my memory, we have begun to doubt the very legitimacy of the Capitalist system. Now that I have hauled his collected works from my bookshelf, let me read you another short line of Erich Hobsbawm.


‘Bizarre as it may seem today, between 1930 and 1960 level-headed observers assumed that the state-commanded economic system of the USSR under the Five-Year Plans, primitive and inefficient as even the most sympathetic visitors could see it was,  represented a global alternative model to western ‘free enterprise’. There were as few votes in the word ‘capitalism’ then as in the word ‘communism’ today. Level-headed observers considered it might actually out-produce it. I am not surprised to find myself once again among a generation that distrusts capitalism, though it no longer believes in our alternative to it.’




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