Golden Years

Universal Basic Income and the passing of David Bowie in one blog? You bet.

This weekend I was getting myself in a mood about how difficult it seems for young people to start up with the carefree abandon that Gerardine and I had when we set out on our journey at the turn of the 80s. We were unencumbered by debilitating housing costs (our shared house cost us £18 each a week) and blessed with cheap rents to “have a go” at business ideas. My mood got worse when on a filthy wet and dark Monday morning the news of my hero David Bowie’s death started to break.

A day later when the shock had died down I started to think of any pop stars or rock stars who would have the same effect on people who were teenagers in nineties, noughties or who are teenagers today. I kept thinking is it because I am getting old myself that I can’t think of any newer generation icons. Lady GaGa, nicely styled without the songs to match. Madonna some great pop hits but hardly the art or the risk that was David Bowie. Beyoncé, Jay Z, Rhianna: pop stars all but there is no way they could inspire an exhibition as life affirming as the 2013 V&A Bowie exhibition.

I kept thinking why is it that there seems to be no Lennon, McCartney, Jagger or Bowie for recent and current generations? Could one reason be that there isn’t the freedom to dream that Bowie and we all had back then? Are today’s debilitating housing costs, student loans, the low wages, lack of career security and reliance on mum and dad are curtailing the space to dream? Coming from a low income background I got funded by Blackburn Council to go to uni in London, I had a decent surplus after all my accommodation costs and it was easy to supplement that with work. The Golden Years were there for the Bowie generation but not for today’s.

We have been failing a generation in terms of “life chances” for the first time. Most children can’t expect to financially “better” their parents. This “failing” looks set to continue and with there being no sign of a reduction in the horrendous, unfair and potentially destructive equality gap, isn’t it time for some radical politics? But rather than debate radical solutions to a worsening situation for the younger generations we have a government that seems only intent in making sure that it remains in power for a generation or two by bringing in a new voter registration that experts say will reduce the number of voters from the younger generation and by cutting the number of seats in parliament (and guess what its mainly seats in traditionally non Conservative voting areas). In addition the Conservatives seem intent on reducing the political influence of trade unions, think tanks and charities. They are managing to get more of the own, mainly elderly peers into the House of Lords but failing the young.

It doesn’t seem to matter that even the Financial Times has done research that shows that only three out of 100 of the senior economic thinkers in the UK feel that the deficit is a worry. The Government have cleverly put the country in fear of deficit enabling them to diminish many public services. The press are blinkered (and in turn are blinkering the public) and seem to just want to attack the opposition allowing the Government to continue its sustained attack on the public services and allowing George Osborne’s crusade to shrink the state (On the Radio 4 Today Programme he recently boasted of overseeing “the most sustained squeeze on public spending for 100 years“). When there is a housing crisis, worries about pensions, insecure employment it sickens me to see how much of the media continues to trivialise politics. You would think that the Evening Standard and Dylan Jones would see how pathetically shallow they sound when in an article about London Men Fashion Week they focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s dress sense.  How facile and shallow does this quote by Dylan Jones sound: “I think Corbyn looks like a dustbin man. In fact I take that back as it’s an insult to dustbin men who make a fair fist of how they have to look. Corbyn just looks dreadful.”

But at least some countries are being progressive and experimental. I had never heard of the concept Universal Basic Income (UBI) until now (even though Wikipedia shows that the idea has been mooted for decades). In short, UBI guarantees a monthly income to everyone, equally and without any conditions on the payment. Finland is about to embark on a UBI experiment paying Euro 550 to all its population and monitoring the outcome (Utrecht in Holland is doing something similar but on a smaller scale). Unemployment and inequality has steadily grown in Finland and the Government is looking for radical solutions. The thinking being that with this income providing stability it frees people to be more creative, entrepreneurial, or pursue humanitarian causes. In addition it frees up the state from the expense of running welfare departments and chasing benefit cheats. Critics argue that people will just watch more telly, eat more junk and get lazier. Well at last there are positive significant experiments that give human beings a chance to shine. This is a far cry from the approach being taken in the UK where the government and much of the media seem to think that the British people consist of a significant number of shirkers and skivers.

There has to be a chance that UBI could give people from all walks of life the freedom to be experimental and brave themselves. When Gerardine and I came to London as teenagers at the turn of the 80s rents on our flat and our first market stalls were affordable to just about everyone, we didn’t need the “Bank of Mum and Dad“. Both of us were from working class backgrounds but there was no glass ceiling, no talk of an equality gap, but rather just the sense that we could improve on our parents lot and that the world was indeed our oyster. It felt totally liberating to have cheap rents both in terms of accommodation and for business. Life was an adventure rather than a struggle. There seemed to be opportunity at every turn.

Maybe UBI could bring that opportunity back, maybe it will fail, but we should applaud the bravery of Finland and Holland. I wish them every luck.