Ed Howker: Young, gifted, and broke before they start

It isn't only mountainous student fees that confront Britain's young adults. So much for the Government's talk of a 'horizon shift'
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The Independent Online

Britain's politics has been too short term for too long and, to fix this, the coalition proposes a "horizon shift" towards the long term. Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister set out the case by savaging Labour's opportunistic and "poisonous" approach to welfare and pensions policies. Instead, he pledged, on behalf of future generations, to "wipe the slate clean" – and not simply so that he could scrawl another apology on it.

Since then, certain enlightened ministers have begun to casually drop the odd "horizon shift" into conversation. And, when the Chancellor sought to defend his spending review, he, too, explained that "there is nothing fair about burdening future generations with the debts we ourselves are not prepared to pay".

Seemingly, the language of the future is gaining ground with the Government. That's good news – surely the very least we can expect from our politicians is a sense that they are governing in the long-term interests of the country? The bad news is equally straightforward – it's not sufficient in a democracy to merely "claim" that you are acting in our best interests.

The general idea – and this is for Mr Clegg's benefit – is that you suggest a list of reforms which could bring about a more successful future. Then you put yourself and the policies to the vote at a general election. You're not really meant to conjure them afterwards, on the fly.

You can see why the future might be a tricky subject for a coalition. Since no single party won the election, no manifesto for action won a majority in Parliament, making that long-term path difficult to determine. As a result, the Government could find itself increasingly reliant on headlines and capricious polls to define its horizon. For Mr Clegg, this predicament is most difficult, since he sees the conflation of newspaper headlines and "real progress" as the precondition of Labour's poisonous short-termism.

This week, when Vincent Cable jettisons the Liberal Democrat pledge to abolish tuition fees, the Government will redefine the future. A man who paid no similar price for his education will raise the costs of tuition to as much as £9,000 per annum for future generations. As he does so, he, too, may incant fairness "in the long term". He will say, using logic that will probably bewilder you and me, that by making it more difficult for people to go to university, he is actually securing their future. This humiliation, he has calculated, is a price worth paying for the opportunity to undertake further good works on our behalf.

I would not like to be a Liberal Democrat. But nor would I like to be a smart teenager who is about to be laid low by even greater university debts than I faced. And I would not like to be that pupil's parents – devastated that they did not earn more or save more for their child's education.

Many will weigh up the costs and decide university is not for them. Wealth and not merit will play an increasing role in young people's educational decisions. Is that fair? No. Will it benefit us in the long term? Certainly not. Our country's future prosperity requires the workforce to be as well educated as possible.

Things get no better for those joining that workforce. The "horizon shifters" seem to have little to offer the 1.5 million unemployed young people in Britain. These men and women may also ask if the Chancellor's long-term view, which demands a cutting of their opportunities, is fair. They will note that the Future Jobs Fund has been abolished and no replacement yet offered. They might point out that if his intention is to address public debts which will not be settled for decades in any event, his Treasury would settle them faster if more people work and pay tax sooner. Right now, their futures lie silent and stalled. Businesses are not recruiting. The long-term interests of those who are young and unemployed cannot begin to be realised until they get a job.

And what about the people in work, who have found a partner, and who are contemplating the most essential action on behalf of future generations – having kids? They might also scan the horizon in vain. Stable housing, the bedrock of family life, remains unaffordable. It is estimated that 2.8 million couples are delaying having children for want of decent housing. Another 385,000 are postponing marriage until they can afford a mortgage. They will wait a while since the average age of first-time buyers is now 38. If that number does not fall, the coalition can be confident that Britain's future society will be anything but "big". For those suffering these trials, the problems may seem purely personal but they are endemic.

We have a shortage of homes coupled with a national obsession with "buy-to-let". As a result, people are forced into expensive, unstable, short-hold tenancies. But the coalition has cut the funding for house-building and has done nothing to discourage speculation. According to Channel 4's economics editor, Faisal Islam, earlier this month, buy-to-let mortgages now represent 11 per cent of all mortgages – they are booming at the very moment that Britain needs private investment, not in housing already built, but in new homes and businesses.

Slowly, it is possible to see a "long term" very different from the one talked up by the Government. It will involve bright but poor young people who have chosen to quit education rather than service debt. Many of them, as well as graduates already in debt, will spend their first working years on the dole, and our society will continue to delay having children. If nothing is done, the effects will be felt for decades, touching everything from tax revenue to couple formation to GDP and population. And Mr Clegg will finally get the horizon shift he seeks – but only because an entire generation has lowered its sights.

Ed Howker is co-author, with Shiv Malik, of 'Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth'