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Never forget: Young people suffered so that old people could live

As we emerge from this nightmare, the sacrifices made by our generation must give way to incomparably more favourable government policy.

Yes, I know. Obviously, some young lives were saved by lockdown and of course, it’s not like the elderly haven’t suffered from being locked up. BUT you can’t argue with the crux of it, because it’s true! Overwhelmingly, young people were extremely unlikely to ever be at risk from anything other than a cold, whilst the over-50s have accounted for 99% of COVID-related deaths and 80% of hospitalisations. And yet, we suffered the same brutal effects of coronavirus restrictions that I’m sure I don’t have to go into.

Why weren’t there riots? Where was the anti-lockdown Fridays for Future movement? I’m joking obviously. We complied to prevent many, many more elderly people from dying. Some will say this was the right thing to do, others will disagree. In any case, we made extraordinarily selfless sacrifices for the elderly, and as we emerge from this pandemic, government policy must absolutely acknowledge this.

‘But the pandemic was no one’s fault. Why should the old owe a debt to the young for simply protecting life, abiding by rules the old were also subject to?’, I hear you think. Well, two things to say really. Firstly, whilst the virus disproportionately affects the old, the restrictions disproportionately affect the young. Believe me when I say it really isn’t the same thing being locked up at home when you’re 70 than it is when you’re 19. And as I see it, the number of people who became seriously ill or died from COVID is miniscule compared to the number of young people severely impacted by restrictions. Come on, try to find me someone our age, student or worker, who says that they haven’t been chronically impacted by the coronavirus restrictions. (I’ll wait). Even the sexagenarian Andrew Marr recently pointed out that our generation has been by far the hardest hit economically over the last year. Secondly, let’s not forget young people have been taking a hit for the sake of old people long before anyone had ever heard of COVID, and contrary to a pandemic, this was down to choice.

Let’s cast our minds back a decade. As part of the “punitive, mean-spirited and callous” austerity programme of David Cameron’s government (as a senior UN human rights official put it), students had their tuition fees tripled and maintenance grants scrapped to pay for the economic catastrophe caused by reckless bankers. Our generation has also seen since 2010 youth services slashed, a secure jobs crisis, the prospect of owning a house turned into a fantasy due to quantitative easing, and the worst wage squeeze since the Napoleonic wars. Meanwhile, a government ‘triple-lock’ has meant state pensions have continued to rise in line with prices and inflation. (Socialism for the old, austerity for the young?)

Fast forward a little, the outcome of the 2019 election saw the perfect example of old people making decisions, the negative effects of which fall disproportionately on, you guessed it, the young: if only the over-65s had voted, every seat in the country would have gone to Boris Johnson, whereas if only the under 30s had voted, Jeremy Corbyn would’ve won the biggest landslide in British political history. But our electoral system didn’t reflect this voting balance at all: A Tory landslide that led to the hardest of Brexits (the 2016 Brexit vote also decided overwhelmingly by the over-65). The effects? Erasmus, from which so many students benefited has been scrapped along with the ease with which many young workers were crucially able to move across Europe.

This is all before even coming on to the climate crisis! The existential threat to our species that can only be tackled with a transformational Green New Deal, which of course the elderly keep on rejecting at the polls, time and time again. Hmm, which is the only age group that truly have to worry about the climate emergency? Right again: the young!

My friends, this is not an ageist argument. I’m not calling on all under-25s to march on care homes or anything like that. I understand the reasons for stark generational divides in voting patterns, and I understand why young people have had no choice but to suffer during this pandemic, purely to protect the vulnerable. But there is no getting away from the fact that social policy in our recent history simply hasn’t paid enough attention to the needs of the young, and it needs to: we are the future. Both for ourselves and for the middle-aged population that we will be supporting economically in the decades to come. (Let’s remember we have an aging population!) If that means, for once, we become an economic priority rather than the elderly, so be it.

So, let’s make COVID a turning point, where the sacrifices of the young in favour of the elderly draw attention to the need for government to prioritise investing in young people. It starts with making university tuition free again; investing in way more job opportunities for graduates and making unpaid internships illegal; bringing in maintenance grants for students, graduates and young workers who cannot afford to live in expensive cities; raising the minimum wage to £10/h to tackle youth income inequality; rebuilding an economic model grossly inept for taking on the climate catastrophe.

It ends with a generation of people who won’t be unemployed, debt-ridden, financially held-back and facing climate Armageddon. A generation of workers who will, as a result, be able to fulfil their true, and our country’s, potential. Never let a good crisis go to waste, they say; Let COVID be that watershed moment where social policy finally begins to acknowledge our existence.

Image: University of Edinburgh students protest in London for free education in 2014 via The Student

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