Jayne Dowle: Listen to lost generation in ‘them and us’ Britain

A graduation ceremony at the University of York.
A graduation ceremony at the University of York.
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WILL someone please listen to Alan Milburn? The former Labour minister has produced yet another report for his Social Mobility Commission. It finds that young people are deeply pessimistic about their chances of getting on in Britain’s “them and us” society.

He says that the under-50s “increasingly feel like they are on the wrong side of a profound unfairness”. This is why, he argues, young voters turned out in record numbers to vote in the General Election. In particular, they are worried about money, job security and a place to live. Fairly major stuff then.

Almost 5,000 people were interviewed for this new Social Mobility Barometer. Some good it will do. Its aims are worthy, its findings reinforce everything about our society that most of us already know or at least suspect. Will any Government minister take any meaningful notice of it?

They should.

The signs are not great. It’s as if those with the power to make any difference live in an alternative universe. They won’t even take on board what experts such as Milburn tell them, never mind listen to ordinary people.

Let’s take the issue of university tuition fees. This policy, actually introduced by Labour in 1998, has become a major barrier to social mobility.

One of the most reliable ways for a young person from a modest background to get on in life is to study at university and enter a profession such as teaching, banking, the law or the media.

Yet, according to the latest figures from the Student Loans Company, the average student debt on graduating in England is now £32,220 as a result of £9,000-a-year fees.

It’s no wonder that the personal cost of university became a touchstone of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign. My friend is one of his most vociferous supporters. She has myriad health problems, and lives in a council house with her husband who works as a cleaner. Her family has already put two daughters through university and they have another bright teenager raring to follow in her sisters’ footsteps.

Imagine how this mother feels. She wants her children to have the chances she has been denied, but knows that she cannot offer any financial support. What’s the alternative? Sending them out into the world to start their adult lives saddled with a debt they are unlikely to ever pay off.

There are countless families in a similar situation. I speak regularly to teenagers who say that they would like to go to university, but there is no way they can afford it.

My daughter, who is 11, is already worrying about how much it costs and how it gets paid for.

I’m not proud to live in a country like this. It is 31 years this autumn since I went to university myself, the daughter of a steelworker and the first girl in my entire extended family to take a degree. It shames me to think how far the pendulum has swung the other way in those three decades.

I left Barnsley for Oxford shortly after the Miners’ Strike. Thousands of local jobs were lost in my home town. Industry was decimated. Communities destroyed.

Yet hundreds of teenagers went into higher education with me that year; ambitious, aspirational and buoyed up by the pride of their parents and grandparents.

We are the parents now and we look at our children sometimes and weep. Social mobility isn’t about having a fancy car or a bigger house than the neighbours. It’s about natural progression, one generation after another moving forward. When this goes into reverse in family after family, the nation has a problem.

My mum and dad used to tell us about their first pay packet. It was always in the context of how small it was and how things had changed (for the better).

I won’t be having this kind of conversation with my own children. I’ll have to tell them that the hourly rates of pay for bar-work, which I did in my university holidays, have perhaps gone up by just a pound or two since I pulled pints. The cost of living, meanwhile, has soared.

I’d also have to say that in journalism, the average day-rate for a shift on a newspaper or magazine in London is now actually less than it was when I was starting out. I struggled to live in the capital then, but I managed to put down a deposit on a small flat and obtain a mortgage at the age of 24.

I think it’s fair to say that unless a Lottery win drops from the skies, this will be entirely beyond the means of my children. Indeed buying a house of their own, anywhere, will be entirely beyond the means of millions of young people. We cannot call this progress.

I hope that the Government will listen to Mr Milburn, and act. It will not possess a magic wand, or indeed a magic money tree. However, it must as a matter of urgency, tackle the profound inequalities which are tearing our country apart and blighting the future of our children.