Young people have paid enough – spare them from footing the coronavirus bill | Gaby Hinsliff

The kids are boomeranging back again. Up and down the country, overgrown children are shuffling home to roost, refugees from a virus that has stalled their adult lives mid-launch. University lectures and supervisions have all been moved online, so there’s no point student children moping around deserted halls when they could be home ransacking the parental fridge. Gap years too are ending abruptly in a mad scrabble for the last flight out. And for those losing wobbly first jobs in the early wave of coronavirus redundancies, from bar and shop workers to freelancers whose commissions have dried up overnight, home is the refuge of last resort. But now what?

Everyone rightly sympathises with forlorn GCSE and A-level students, left in limbo when their exams were cancelled and still unsure of their path to university. But the worst hit in many ways are 18-year-old school leavers and final-year university students, due to emerge this summer into the world of work. Who will be hiring in the wake of what looks like a vertiginous crash? It’s hard to see many openings at the bottom of the ladder, and the temporary jobs in pubs or coffee shops that graduates took during the last recession when the “milk round” recruiters stopped calling are precisely the ones now going to the wall.

Even if the economy bounces back relatively swiftly this time, thanks to the extraordinary measures taken around the world to save jobs, there’s still the multitrillion-dollar question of what happens when the once-in-a-lifetime debts racked up by governments during the emergency have to be repaid. For the lesson from the last crash is that unless politicians actively chooses to shield them, it’s the young who end up paying the price.

This week’s long-planned rise in both the so-called national living wage and the minimum wage for the under-25s, is a good example of how the virus is reshaping economic choices. With many businesses already on the verge of extinction, for once there’s actually a sound argument for delaying anything which could push them over the edge; the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which has led the way in pushing for a generous economic response to this crisis, nonetheless argues putting off the wage hike till autumn could save low-paid jobs.

But there’s also a compelling moral argument for rewarding the supermarket cashiers and cleaners, hospital porters and warehouse workers risking infection to keep the rest of us fed and safe, which is why ministers have been wary of holding back. And that’s just the first of a series of counterintuitive choices facing Boris Johnson once the infection has finally run its course. Trying to rebalance the books in the way David Cameron did after the banking crash would risk mutiny – how could public sector pay freezes be justified after everything the NHS and emergency services have done? – yet alternatives such as swingeing wealth taxes would take a revolution in the way both Conservative politicians and Conservative voters think.

We should all beware whipping up intergenerational resentment where it does not exist. There is absolutely no evidence of twentysomethings railing resentfully against a joyless lockdown imposed mainly to save the elderly, despite the 74-year-old journalist Max Hastings’s call for older people to sacrifice themselves. Everyone knows this is about protecting the people we love, from pensioners to pregnant young women.

But there was precious little generational resentment at the height of the banking crash, either; that came only afterwards, when it became obvious that some were paying a higher price than others for getting Britain back on its feet. Back then, many middle-aged and older people clung to their assets, furiously resisting attempts to tap into their collective property wealth via mansion taxes or Theresa May’s now infamous planned social care reforms. Pensions were relatively protected even as younger working-age people saw a long squeeze on both public and private sector wages, ballooning tuition fees and dreams of home ownership vanishing over the horizon.

The final insult was being saddled with a Brexit most of them didn’t want – unsurprisingly, given they’d already had enough economic shocks to last a lifetime – but that many older Britons vigorously did. The young were let down badly after the last crash and it scarred them – something that is often forgotten by the middle-aged when sniping at supposed millennial fragility. A decade on, we won’t be forgiven for doing the same again to Generation Z.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

The Guardian

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