Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Generation Z
By Charlie Stross

I've been spending a little time lately asking myself questions about the near future. And in particular—this is especially relevant if you're planning on writing a near-future SF novel set maybe 15-30 years hence—what it's going to be like as an experience for, well, not for my generation (I'll be 65-80 if I live that long: of declining relevance) but for the next generation on. And I suspect it'll be pretty shitty.

I was born in late 1964, the youngest child of older-than-average parents who married late: my cousins are (or were) part of the baby boom generation, but culturally I'm an early type specimen of Generation X.

My generation (in the UK) benefited from free university education, as long as we got in before 1992. From 1992 onwards, the student grant (subsistence payments for living, roughly comparable to being on the dole) were phased out, replaced completely by repayable loans by 1996. Then tuition fees were brought in, replacing the previously-free education framework as the universities were de facto privatised and turned into profit-making diploma mills. No sheepskin means no job if you don't have an employment track record, so Generations Y and subsequent were condemned to go heavily into debt to acquire the magic credentials without which an HR department won't look at them. Today's students expect to graduate with a burden of over £40,000 in loans on their back.

When I came out of university and post-graduate training in the late 80s, a housing bubble was inflating rapidly. I bought my first home, a one bedroom apartment in a modern development, with parking and a box room and an airy living room, for a little under £28,000. It seemed like a lot of money at the time: an elder sibling, 8 years before me, had bought their first home (a 2 bedroom house in Nottingham) for around £12,000. Housing in the 1970s was unimaginably cheap by today's standards. Just over 15 months later after I bought my flat I sold it for £40,000 and used the profits to put myself back into university, having decided that my original career choice was rather unfortunate. Someone born just a decade after me wouldn't have had that option. By the late 90s the bubble was reinflating: a decade on from my purchase, apartments like that one were changing hands for on the order of £100,000, well above the creditworthiness of a new graduate in their first job with a 100% mortgage, even if they weren't burdened by a pre-existing education loan larger than the cost of my first mortgage.

Since 2008, the UK economy has stagnated drastically. It's still producing jobs—this hasn't been called the "unemployment-free recession" for nothing—but they're mostly low-paid jobs at the bottom of the pile. We can still manufacture stuff, it seems, but manufacturing no longer provides mass employment. And service jobs are rapidly being automated, as witness the spread of self-service checkouts and ATMs and lights-out warehouses. (You know the pack drill: I'm not going to repeat the reasons for this here.) The important news is that wage growth is finally overtaking inflation for the first time in 5 years, after a period of net decline in personal income (unless you're in the 1% at the top of the 1%, of course).

I'm not even going to anatomize the new housing bubble: it's just plain depressing to contemplate.

So: low or stagnant income, the services my generation depended on and took for granted will no longer exist or be private monopolies, you either take on a crushing debt burden or consign yourself to unskilled labour for life, the cost of housing is an unsuperable barrier. To that you can add childcare costs: it's estimated that the cost of day care for one infant is around 70-80% of the average female wage. One ray of hope for Generation Y is rising life expectancy—but by the same token the retirement age is rising, because there's no way that working for 40 years can cover the costs of education and housing debt and a pension or annuity that will support you for another 25-30 years. Generation Y will probably work until they become too infirm, some time in their late 70s to early 80s, then experience the final 3-5 year period of decline in poor health and poverty if this goes on (because of course we're talking about the state of the nation between 2060 and 2080).

If you follow this blog you already know my views on how we have created a security panopticon surveillance state the like of which would have given the East German Stasi wet dreams. Generation Y have come of age in this state; to the Millennial generation, East Germany probably looks like a near-utopia. (You have a 90% chance of your phone conversations not being bugged, and the state will pay for your education, housing, and healthcare! What's not to like?)

There has been a boom market in dystopian young adult fiction over the past decade. There is a reason for this. Play and recreation is an important training mechanism in young mammals by which they practice or rehearse activities that will fit them for later adult life experiences. (It's also fun, but bear with me while I discuss the more ploddingly puritan angle for a moment.) Could it be that the popularity of YA dystopias reflects the fact that our youngest generation of readers expect to live out their lives in dystopia? (The alternative explanations hold that (a) high school in the age of helicopter parenting, fingerprint readers in the library, and CCTV in the corridors is an authoritarian dystopia anyway, and YA dys-fic helps kids understand their environment; and (b) that worse, their parents (who influence their reading) think this.)

On a global scale, things are improving. The absolute number of people living in poverty has remained static or actually declined over two decades during which our population rose dramatically. Wars affect fewer people than ever before. Huge swathes of the developing world are actually developing, and are now within sight of catching up with our declining developed world standard of living. But that's scant consolation to those of us who are trapped in the middle. And the way things are looking now, I expect the 30 year old Brits of 2030, people whose grandparents were buying houses and starting families on a single breadwinner's wages in the 1960s, will be envying the living standards of the average Malaysian citizen.

This decline has not of course gone unnoticed by the elite. There's a reason for the increasing militarization of police and security organizations in the United States and the UK: widespread civil disorder escalating to revolution along the lines of the Arab Spring is no longer unimaginable by 2030 if current trends continue. The oligarchs can hold the lid down by force for quite a considerable time, but the longer this continues the worse the eventual explosion will be, as witness the upheavals in Egypt or Ukraine.

So there's the problem in a nutshell. What should we be doing about it? And what is it feasible for us to do? (For example: I'd love to see a UK government deflate the housing market by around 80% and renationalize a bunch of infrastructure that should never have been sold off in the first place, but I recognize that it would be political suicide for any party that tried it).
Posted by Charlie Stross at 14:30 on April 15, 2014 | Comments (78)

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