Nineties Britain: a generation divided

Glenda Cooper reports on the rise of a growing underclass among twentysomethings
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Twentysomething Britain is a divided society where the gap between the haves and have nots becomes increasingly distinct, and a definite underclass is emerging.

A survey of 9,000 people born in the same week in 1970 describes the twentysomething as a political cynic who nevertheless believes strongly in family values, tough policies on law and order and firm commitment to the work ethic.

Professor John Brynner, director of the Social Statistics Research Unit at City University in London, who carried out the survey sees them as far from radical. They are increasingly conservative with views indistinguishable from their parents - except that Labour is now the party of the thinking classes and women have deserted the Tories in droves. Support among women has halved since 1991.

Professor Brynner, who will present his findings at an Economic and Social Research Council conference today has classified today's twentysomethings as either "getting on", "getting by", or "getting nowhere". He said: "The most significant difference with today's 26-year-olds compared with an earlier cohort born in 1958 is the emergence of a group of unskilled men and women who face a grim future, trapped in a vicious downward spiral. The job market for these people has collapsed and youth training schemes have failed to equip them for the few jobs that do exist."

John Major's classless society has not been realised as the polarisation increases. Social class is still the most important link to success - there is now a tenfold difference in the chances of becoming high earners between the children of fathers in professional and managerial classes compared to children of unskilled workers and the unemployed. Qualifications also play a huge part - those with a degree earned on average 25 per cent more than those without.

The "getting on" group tended to have gone to university, which equipped them with the qualifications to do well in managerial and professional careers. There was little gender difference - well-qualified able 26-year- old women were as likely to be in high-powered jobs as their male peers - providing they were still childless. Such young people "had thrown themselves into work and the pursuit of success, postponing the responsibilities of partnership and parenthood" said the report,

Those "getting by" had fewer qualifications and tend to be in ordinary jobs with limited prospects, working long hours for modest wages and were mostly in committed relationships. The picture was bleaker for those with children with both parents likely to have poorer qualifications, lower status jobs and less likely to own their own homes.

But the "group that must become the focus of government policy ... We ignore them at our peril" is the "getting nowhere" group whose members had no qualifications, were on benefits and had not picked up any marketable skills from training schemes. They are restricted to poorly paid and highly insecure work. "They have neither the personal resources, nor skills to even get into the game," warned Professor Brynner. "They are becoming marginalised by society and need to be provided with the means to rejoin it. These young people were really getting nowhere and nowhere is becoming a much harder place to be."

Housework is still off the agenda for New Man, the ESRC conference will be told today. When a woman takes a full-time job she typically decreases her housework by 10 hours, while her husband will increase his contribution to compensate. The net effect is for the woman to increase her total hours of paid and unpaid work by 25 hours. In contrast if a man gets a full- time job he reduces his contribution to housework by five hours and his wife increases it by the same amount.

It's typical of our generation to delay on marriage


Melissa Larken, 27, and Miranda Birtles, 26, were straight out of university when they set up their free, glossy magazine The Resident. Distributed through the letterboxes of Chelsea, Knightsbridge and their environs, it covers "lifestyle", with features on Sir Terence Conran's new Bluebird restaurant and the skeletons in Alan Clark's cupboard.

The pair graduated while the recession was still biting and decided to do something different. They started off with "one telephone and a telephone directory". They managed to raise pounds 15,000 to finance the first issue and The Resident took off from there. Now they have an office on the Fulham Road in west London, employ several people and bring the magazine out bi-monthly with a print-run of 35,000. Contributors to the magazine include Elizabeth Hurley, Jeffrey Bernard, Sheridan Morley and Barbara Cartland while advertisers include Coutts' bank, Peter Jones, BMW and Mercedes Benz.

Their degrees from Durham and UCL in psychology and anthropology were "completely irrelevant subjects" but they think university was important for job prospects. "When you leave university you are often more adaptable than when you leave school: you know the necessity of economic discipline. I think the time you spend there is beneficial," says Melissa.

"A degree isn't everything," adds Miranda. "In this market, confidence is extremely valuable as degrees are no longer a guaranteed passport to a job."

They see work experience as a vital step. "For the employer it is a source of free labour," says Melissa. "But it's something you have to invest a lot of time in and it can be very useful for the person at the end."

Both describe themselves as "single". "At the moment the magazine is all-consuming. I just haven't got time," says Melissa. "It's typical of our generation to delay on marriage and families."

As yet The Resident has not made them a fortune - they pay themselves a "graduate salary", but they say "it's early days" and are confident that they will strike paydirt when they are ready to sell the magazine to one of the major publishing companies.

Get up and go, the need to go out there and achieve things by yourself, is, they think, typical of their generation, who have spent the majority of their lives under a Thatcherite government.

In 20 years' time I'd like to have a full-time job


If there is one thing David Jowsey hates it is people who assume that those without work are lazy: "It's just an excuse they make because the Government has messed it up." But he is well aware that leaving school at 16 with no qualifications means that his chances of a job are slim.

He moved out of home into bed and breakfast after difficulty with his parents while on a youth training scheme: "But it was difficult to pay for living there when I was on a scheme and I ended up on the street. I couldn't keep up with payments and I ended up sleeping rough for a couple of weeks."

He did that until a relative let him stay for a while. Now he is back in another bed and breakfast organised by the council.

His training scheme involved working on a milk round but, being homeless, he dropped out of the scheme. He had hoped to work towards a National Vocational Qualification in business administration. He managed to get a three-month contract doing manual labour but is now back on the dole.

David, 20, is getting married next year, to someone he met at The Base, a Barnado's drop-in centre for 16-25-year-olds, he attends in Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear. While he supports tough measures on crime, he feels that sometimes it's understandable. "People are sometimes forced to do it to eat. If they mess up your claim it takes two weeks before it's sorted out and it's not even your fault. I think it's getting worse for young people today. Benefit is cut in half for the under-25s and yet we're still meant to live on it ... I get pounds 37.90 a week, but I only survive because I get money from families and friends."

He feels more education and training is the answer, but says there should be more variety in the schemes. He wants to work, for a living but he is not sure how this will be achieved. "In 20 years' time - I'd like to have a full-time job. I would like to be a social worker, or do something to help other people."