Stop scapegoating students

“Those are unique years for anybody. They are being patient, and they are coping with what is, from every perspective, an abnormal experience of their time at university, of their first few months and years as independent adults. ”
Photo by Andrew Neel, courtesy of unsplash

Over the past few days, the calamitous Health Secretary Matt Hancock, several Ministers, and the usual peddlers of faux outrage have released their latest scapegoating campaign, to great acritical acclaim across their loyal tabloids. Unsurprisingly, their moralistic dog whistling focused on students, and on the long-suffering young people of the UK.

They have crafted an insidious narrative that pre-emptively blames young people for a predictable increase in coronavirus infections in the autumn. Many ‘young professionals’ are returning to their offices, to indoor and enclosed spaces, and students are being moved around the country in their hundreds of thousands, to a great extent for the purpose of kick-starting the student-fuelled economies of many of our cities. This intergenerational friction is not new, but this renewed blame game, with its pathetic ‘don’t kill granny’ melodramatic rhetoric really does add insult to injury.

Over the past few years, the average British millennial has been stripped of their European citizenship, and all the exciting life opportunities it entails, largely against their will. Young people remain well and truly locked out of an inhuman housing market. They are forced to work long hours on top of full-time studies yet will still graduate dozens of thousands of pounds in debt and into yet another catastrophic recession that is not of their own making.

My students invariably work low paid, often exhausting shifts straight after they leave the classroom. Their weekends are filled with extra work. They do it without complaining. I have seen an exponential increase in mental health conditions, although only a few report them. They are the exact opposite of ‘generation snowflake’: they are generous, hard-working, versatile, enthusiastic, and optimistic survivors.

During this wretched pandemic, nobody is sacrificing more than they are, and I am not just talking about the heroic nurses and junior doctors who made their clinical debut during the worst of the outbreak, witnessing unspeakable scenes of pain, death and despair. What my students are currently giving to society is irreplaceable: they are renouncing important aspects of their 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st year…

Those are unique years for anybody. They are being patient, and they are coping with what is, from every perspective, an abnormal experience of their time at university, of their first few months and years as independent adults. These are some of the most beautiful moments of anyone’s life.

To make matters worse, many of them have been through a particularly traumatic educational experience. After years of hard work, they saw how an impersonal algorithm downgraded their achievements. This sent them the most appalling of messages a young person can get: that their future is shaped by where they come from, by who they are, rather than determined by them, with their effort, their talent, and, of course, their own luck.

The future is also daunting. Increasing national debt will be paid by those who are still alive in 20 years’ time. The prospects of retiring and having a pension seem more at jeopardy than they have ever been in our lifetimes, not to mention the environmental legacy that the young will inherit.

My experience working with these generations tells me that they are socially responsible people, and a marked improvement on their predecessors. They have much more empathy, and much less prejudice, than those currently running the show. They deserve much better than being scapegoated for these present horrors. And herein lies my reason to remain optimistic.

A crisis, a critical episode, is also a decisive moment. Change gathers pace and, despite the immediate shock, big moments of change also bring big windows of opportunity. Our young people are adaptable, versatile, and resilient. They will decipher the world around them. They will embrace change and benefit from it. The future will be of their own making and, for that reason, it will be better than this dystopian present.

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