Talking About My Generation

Monday 9th August 2021

by Patrick Sullivan, Chairman and Chief Executive of Parliament Street

The late Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer, once claimed that we come to look upon the 1990s as a holiday from history”. I believe he was right. My childhood was lived in the nineties, which I consider a blessing. For all of my adult life history has been moving at breakneck speed and most often not for the good.

My generation has lived with non-stop crisis from the moment the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001. Almost immediately we found the country engaged in a war in Afghanistan and a less easy to define War on Terror. Then came Iraq, a conflict where we were not greeted as liberators. Thanks to the US policy of de-Baathification we soon found our troops having to fight off an insurgency. It was only when President Bush ordered a troop surge that the situation stabilised. Not long after that we had the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We were fortunate that we did not face a depression then, but for my generation the Great Recession, as it became known, and the austerity that followed with it, hit us especially hard. Despite having to deal with hardship at home, the British and American governments mismanaged their policies towards the Middle East to the such a degree that they provided a fertile environment for the rise of ISIS leading to the emergence of a new generation of domestic terrorists. 

The financial crisis caused a delayed political reaction across the world in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, the British public voted to leave the European Union but a combination of poor decision making and weak leadership from Prime Minister Theresa May allowed the debate to persist long after the result had been declared. This caused the country to facture as Britain exported the American Culture Wars. Suddenly, much of the populace became divided between Brexiteers and Remainers. For much of 2019 it appeared that people could hardly talk about anything else and plenty of families fell out and friendships ended over the issue. It was not even a month after Brexit had been delivered on 31st January 2020 that we started to learn of the coronavirus, and it was less than two months after Brexit had been delivered that we entered the first lockdown.

The coronavirus crisis made our divisions over Brexit appear quaint. The crisis we are still in is not just about COVID-19. The various lockdowns and pandemic restrictions have wrecked the mental health of millions and fuelled a loneliness epidemic. There is also the significant problem of those whose health problems have gone undiagnosed whilst the NHS was all-hands-on-deck fighting the coronavirus. Many small businesses went under during the pandemic but the big tech companies and supermarket chains showed record profits as government mandated lockdowns made them the only game in town for most people. 

Harvard University’s Robert Putnam has likened this current moment in history to that of Gilded Age America’s industrial revolution of the late 19thcentury, which produced the so-called “robber barons” of Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Rockefeller. Putnam sees the new imperialists of Silicon Valley, the Tim Cooks, Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys, as the latter equivalents of the titans of industry from yesteryear. It would take the trust-busting presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to push through anti-trust measures which would break up the monopolies and break the hold the monopolists had over both the American economy and American life in general. Teddy Roosevelt, however, was one-of-a-kind and we will never see another like him. I can hardly see Joe Biden or Boris Johnson stepping into his boots.

In our contemporary politics we find ourselves governed by a Blockbuster Video government whilst living in a Netflix world. Recent news stories about Amazon using algorithms and artificial intelligence to fire employees is extremely troubling. The past year and a half has seen many millions of people suffering from a deficit of human contact. Now, more than ever, do we need to be reassured of our common humanity. It is unfortunate, therefore, that some of our new would-be masters do not see us as us very human at all. It used to be the case that viewing people as little more than numbers would be regarded as Soviet. Now that is just the norm in Silicon Valley.

Too many of my generation feel that they live solely to work and are just a cog in a machine designed to benefit centibillionaires. I am fortunate in that I have been able to do what I am passionate but most are not so lucky. Despite this, I remain, in my middle 30s, a bachelor with little prospects of starting a family in the near future. This would have once been considered odd. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly normal. It is increasingly difficult to juggle the demands of the rat race with having a personal life and most often when something has to give it will be the personal, not the professional. Even if a successful relationship can be maintained it is difficult for couples who are just about able to look after themselves to make the decision to take on the new, added responsibility of raising children.

I am a capitalist but the system we now live under is not capitalism. The very existence of corporations and organisations given limited liability by the state, are inherently anti-capitalistic. As things presently stand, our system seems slanted to benefit those with sufficient existing resources to game it. One need only look at the recent reporting from ProPublica which showed the world’s very wealthiest pay negligible taxes. The public would be forgiven for thinking that two sets of rules exist – those for the ruling class and those for everyone else. History has repeatedly shown us that this is unsustainable.

There is still reason to hope. As Putnam points out the Gilded Age made way for the progressive era of American politics which gave rise to a new social contract. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall our institutions have failed to keep pace with the march of history. As older generations passed away and younger generation were born our collective memory began to fade and we started to forget how and why the social contract we live under came to be. 

As a society it would behoove us well to revisit the social contract to see where it needs strengthening and where it needs updating. It essential that we do this before our divisions become so great that they break the ties that bind us together.

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