Frog Orr-Ewing of the Millenials Think Tank and Latimer Minster project has written an intriguing article exploring the impact of the recent recession on ‘Generation Y’. Published on their blog, it is entitled The Psychology of Recession & Big Society.
In it, he focuses on the “negative psycho-social effects of recession” which include the feelings of social rejection which come from failing to secure employment. The problem of deferred and dashed hopes among the younger generation is complex. It is not simply a story of betrayal but, as Frog rightly points out, also a question of over-inflated and sometimes unrealistic expectations.
The risk being run is mass disengagement. Frog sums up the problem like this:
The double whammy of recession depression and hope deferred, means that the very individuals who have a lifetime ahead of them and who need to be harnessed effectively to create an economically and socially robust future, are those who feel like they have been saddled with the social and economic ills created by the irresponsibility of the generation above their heads, and have had their perceived contract with society broken. It is perceived (however incorrectly) almost as if a company who has fired you is asking for your help, or parents who have thrown you out of the home are asking you to pay rent.
The implication of course is that young people who feel betrayed by society are unlikely to want to contribute to it. There is a certain logic to this position and the Millennials Think Tank are right to flag up the issue. Yet to do so does beg a number of deeper questions. Of these the most important is whether a contract is really the best way of describing society?
Perhaps as a descriptive term it is appropriate. People certainly seem to believe that if they put something in they should get something back. “But that is what I pay my taxes for”, is a common refrain when complaining about a service not being supplied as expected or desired. It is preferable, of course, if they get back more than they put in. Such is the result of politicians promising ever greater returns on an ever smaller investment (the age-old problem in the UK of wanting Scandinavian social services on American taxation levels).
This seems to be the attitude that Frog identifies as affecting young people. They feel in the midst of a recession that too much is being asked of them. This feels particularly acute when set against the apparently comfortable existence of the majority of baby-boomers; an argument set out in detail by David Willetts MP and the authors of Jilted Generation.
The challenge, though, is not simply to try and resolve the dilemma of unmet expectations within the existing framework of contractural social relationships. It is to explore whether other modes of social interaction might be better suited to confronting the problems facing us.
In his excellent article exploring the Big Society, Luke Bretherton argues that a good citizen is not best thought of as a volunteer but as a vow keeper. Voluntarism, after all, maintains power differentials and builds no relational strength. Instead, Bretherton argues that the qualities needed among a healthy society are reciprocity, mutuality, and solidarity. These are the values which should underpin the Big Society. They offer more chance of success than mere voluntarism because they involve sharing each other’s lives; that requires a much deeper sense of mutual respect than rattling a collection tin or handing out blankets to homeless folk ever could.
Frog suggests that a “fresh social contract needs to be published for the next generation”. It is certainly true that we need to reimagine what is expected of our young people, and we certainly need to face up to some of their unmet aspirations. Yet the foundation for doing so may need to be stronger, and deeper, than a contract. Perhaps it is instead a new covenant of mutual social commitment that is needed.
And if anything has the resources to help us think about what a social covenant might be and how it might differ to a contract, it is going to be religious belief.