This month thousands of young adults across the country received their hard earned A-level results, most of them going on to study at university. However, a recent survey showed that over 60% of young people about to enter the adult world are extremely anxious about being trapped in ‘dead end jobs’- stuck with low wages and dim prospects. This anxiety has been met with dismissal by many (“well these kids have a lot more opportunity than I did at that age”!) but these students are right to be somewhat apprehensive about the stresses and strains of modern life, starting with their future job prospects. Following in the footsteps of the USA, Britain is becoming a more service based economy. Since the Occupy movement materialised in America, there has been a spate of strikes by fast-food workers in several US cities. The same anger over low pay in New York and Seattle could well cross the Atlantic in the near future.
If we look at the economics, youngsters should be very worried indeed, as well as the rest of the country. Britain’s ‘economic recovery’ is being mostly driven by consumer spending and the expansion of the service sector. Britain already looks like it did in 2008 forcing even mainstream financial commentators to provide us with gloomy forecasts for the immediate future. Furthermore, the UK’s manufacturing sector has seen only anaemic growth. This is mixed news for young people.
In 1897, the sociologist Emile Durkheim observed the important link between suicide and modern industrialised society. Although, I am certainly not predicting a spate of mass suicides by young people in the near future, the issues of anxiety, depression and instability are worth addressing in a 21st-century context. The astonishing popularity of Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn could well be understood as a misplaced cry for certainty and stability from his supporters, whether they are disgruntled tube workers or demoralised undergraduates.
What then, can we say to the new 2015 university intake? Do we celebrate instability, stressing the utilitarian importance of creative destruction? Modern capitalism is often accused of being horrendously inefficient; providing us with a bountiful supply of cheap clothes and stylish coffee shops, but not with adequate housing or stable jobs. This message ignores the decisive role governments and monetary authorities play in manipulating the economy. The voracious whirlwinds of globalisation and venture capitalism are only an issue because of diabolical government policies. The road to the dismal maquiladora economy and inevitable financial meltdown is mostly paved with the hands of policy makers, and those that share their bed.
Yet arguably our message should also be a philosophical one, namely that the political certainties people may decide to hang their hopes on don’t exist; it’s clear that the ethical implications of ‘Corbynomics’ would be far more ruinous than loathed zero-hours contracts. But we must also be mindful that UKIP and the Traditional Britain Society offer an equally miserable brand of archaic certainty.
The issue of insecurity and getting on in life can best be addressed by adopting an individualist outlook. It’s long been established that GDP isn’t a very good guide to the overall quality of life in any given country. As the economist Richard Easterlin detected, happiness doesn’t rise with income. Adam Smith famously observed that in most cases material wealth is just a corporeal substitute for respect, admiration and glory. The mild status anxieties that we may feel when one of our friends on Facebook gets a prestigious promotion or divulges a voluminous photographic account of their expensive holiday, are mostly a result of us being constantly referred to as a collective. We are always being compared to others and encouraged to feel jealous of other’s success; ‘If my fellow citizen can have X, then why can’t I?’
It was revealed this month that certain employers will no longer be looking exclusively at A-level grades or which university the candidate attended, and instead placing more importance on interviews, showing that even large bureaucratic companies are losing trust in statistics and adopting a more individualistic approach to hiring. Furthermore, it was mentioned recently that private schools often owe the success of their alumni not to better grades but to ‘soft skills‘. This resulted in some rather comical suggestions that somehow, private schools should run ‘soft skill’ sessions (free of charge obviously) to give public school students the same abilities.
The ethos of voluntary interaction and freedom to pursue happiness (whatever the individual’s concept of happiness may be) is one that is at ease with the modern world. First world problems are not something to be scoffed at; depression, stress and divorce are all very serious issues that deserve our attention. The size and scope of Britain’s service economy is profound, and young adults are more likely to be in low-paid service work than other age groups (see figure 1). Truly, a great challenge for those who desire a minimal state is to deconstruct false certainties, whether utopian or traditional. The freedom to be, to exist as one desires is in itself a great virtue, yet very few people seem to be arguing this.The social impact of capitalism is almost exclusively referred to negatively; as a destroyer and exploiter. The rhythms of industrialised life are supposed to be the ultimate cause of our anxieties. Durkheim noted that capitalism had ripped the communal heart out of traditional life and replaced it with nothing, except uncertainty and work. However, the idea that as the workplace becomes more insecure, millions of voters look to the state as a provider of well-being and happiness should be a terrifying prospect. It is troublesome that people will begin to mistake the state for society; efforts asking government to play a greater role in art, literature, music, fashion, sport, food etc. should be rigorously rebuffed.
On the subject of happiness Mises wrote:
What makes a man feel uneasy and less uneasy is established by him from the standard lf his own will and judgement, from his personal and subjective valuation. Nobody is in a position to decree what should make a fellow man happier.
Lugwig Von Mises, Human Action
This rather curt quotation is a fair representation of what this article has tried to convey, that an individual expressing their desires in a free market is a social circumstance as well as an economic one. This is not the same as saying that the satisfaction of emotional needs and wants can only be achieved by the purchasing of material goods. If a Libertarian social system stands accused of being materialistic and hollow, this is indeed a false accusation. Britain’s young adults will enter an environment of contention and volatility. In this context people will understandably look for a comfort blanket, the best response could be that the finest blanket you can have is the one you stitch yourself with voluntary interactions. The modern world is complex and there is no universal equation we can utilise to lead comfortable lives. Yet as cultural trends and social patterns fluctuate, the best place to be is in a truly open society, a place that allows change to happen unhindered by coercion.
Image © Daniel Zedda