Young Britain: A halfway house between America and Europe

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The Independent Online
Sensible, hardworking, decent, tolerant, interested in families and lifestyle rather than politics and world affairs - it has been an attractive and encouraging portrait of Britain's youth which has been examined in this newspaper over the past week. But how well will this generation - to judge by the attitudes it seems to hold - be fitted to the changes which will take place in the world during the next quarter century?

Try some tests. Let's lump the forces for change that will affect this country into five groups - demography, the environment, globalism, technology, and government/society - and see how prepared the next generation is for change.

Start with demography, for the ageing of all developed countries will be one of the most pervasive forces driving change. Britain happens to be ageing rather more slowly than countries in continental Europe, in the sense that the proportion of over 65s will grow more slowly than elsewhere. But the fact remains that a smaller generation of people of working age will have to support a larger number of pensioners. So there will be great pressure on the present generation of young people to be in work all their lives, save for their own retirement, and almost certainly retire later.

Looking at the responses of the survey, it looks as though this message has already struck home. Many young people are already in some kind of part-time work while they carry on their studies, adopting the US model of the labour market rather than the Continental one. One of our headlines during the week suggested that it was "All work and no play in the stressful Nineties". Demographic forces alone will see to it that this generation will be kept hard at work - but at least it seems prepared for this.

The next 25 years will certainly see rising concern about the damage that we are doing to the environment. Here there seems to be a gap between what they say and what they do - a trait not unique to the young. The young talk pale green, but only pale: Swampy is not a hero. One of the most striking features was the love of the young for the car and in particular the freedom it brought. If the successor to the internal combustion engine comes along in the next couple of decades, the young will doubtless welcome it. But they will still want to travel in cars and planes.

Globalism seems to be taken as a given: a process which is inevitable and should be welcomed in its many forms. Nationalism, certainly in its more aggressive forms, seems on the wane. The young have no truck with racism, accepting that one aspect of globalism means people working in different countries. As for the impact of globalism on jobs, the young seem to accept that international competition will mean that jobs will inevitably be less secure. But their response is to try to increase their skills and be flexible about changing jobs, rather than think that globalism should be reversed.

Technology: unsurprisingly the young are comfortable with technology, for this is the generation which is witnessing a sudden leap forward in the electronic technologies - technologies which will transform the workplace over the next generation. They own a lot of electronic kit, for a start: CD players, home computers and the like. They also recognise one of the key changes that technology is likely to bring, more people working from home. There was little or no fear of the ways in which technology might be malign.

Finally government and society. Here it is much harder to be certain about the nature of change. We can be sure of demographic change, of rising environmental concerns and so on. But what happens to government and to society is not only less clear; it crucially depends on the attitudes of the next generation of voters, like the young who answer these surveys.

As far as attitudes to government go, there is a clear demand that more attention should be paid to education and the health service. This can either be interpreted as support for policies of the Liberal Democrats, the only party which said it would raise tax at the last election, or that the young show the same pattern as their parents, saying they want more money spent, but not more tax to fund it.

Thus when asked how the government should raise additional money the top four answers were the lottery, taxing high earners, raising taxes on business and selling off public services. Less than a quarter wanted a rise in income tax, and only 13 per cent a rise in VAT. One disappointment that the young may have to face is that they will have to pay higher taxation even to support the level of services they at present experience, and which they don't think are good enough.

But maybe there will be other big changes in society which reduce the burden on the Welfare State. One of the most interesting responses was the extent to which the young value family life. Most want to get married, though they are not judgmental towards people who do not, such as single parents (though many think it should be made harder to get divorced). Top worry is unemployment, but that is closely followed by drugs and crime. The young want families; they want order. But they want it without the strong moral overtones evident in the US - though two-thirds think of themselves as Christian.

To generalise, it is as though our young have become American in their economic attitudes (get a job, work hard and enjoy spending the rewards) but European in their social attitudes (accept a big role for government, and be generally liberal in their attitudes to others). And maybe that is where these people will take the country: to a half-way place between America and continental Europe, reflecting some features of each society but being different from either. It is not a bad model, and certainly makes for an interesting Britain a generation hence.