Friday, 27 February 2009

It'll get worse before it gets worse

James Ellingworth argues that the current economic cloud has no silver lining at all

Published in The Student 24/2/08 [illus. Harriet Brisley]

Talk of a golden age tends to be the preserve of Middle England types fixated with swearing on the BBC or the evils of the EU, and conjures up images of the prim 1950s and smiles all round at the vicarage tea party. In short, it’s something you’ve probably never considered.
But that might be the future for many students – looking back at the boom years, an age of prosperity, stability and cheap flights, when firms queued up on campus to hand out smoothies and chocolate to entice students into a glittering career in accountancy.
The promised land is rapidly turning to a dystopia, as the boom turns out to have depended on the sleight-of-hand of international finance, a trick that looks ever clumsier as the economy sinks into a mire of now-worthless credit default swaps and bankrupt hedge funds.
With politicians and business leaders such as Bill Gates now predicting that the world will take anything up to a decade to recover from the recession, students and graduates are now faced with the horrifying prospect of emerging into a world struggling to hold on to the affluence they lived with only a few years before.
Add to this the state of the environment, slowly strangled by over-consumption, its demise heralded by increasingly dire warnings from the global scientific community, and the picture is one of fundamental insecurity.
In comparison to the current outlook, the period from 1990 to 2007 seems like a golden age.
The spread of cheap travel can be seen as symptomatic of the boom years’ greatest achievements and its greatest follies, ignoring the rot beneath the surface of the shiny, user-friendly brave new world. Growing up in the Ryanair generation allowed us to travel freely and easily to places our parents’ generation could never have dreamed of visiting. Combined with increased political freedom abroad, the ease of travel in turn made Western countries – and universities – more international and open than ever before.
Even now, the concept of a stag night in Prague (sealed off by the Iron Curtain when most of today’s students were born), or spending a year on a volunteering programme of any benefit besides boosting the tanned participant’s ego, is starting to seem slightly more ridiculous in people’s minds. Soon, it may start to seem quaint, then increasingly so, until it becomes an oddity. Like Edwardian big-game hunting on the African savannah, impulsive, mind-broadening travel will start to fade to sepia in the public consciousness, until it becomes the inaccessible product of a past age.
Just as the demands of the environment force us to consider imposing previously unheard-of restrictions upon freedom of movement, with potentially devastating consequences for internationalism, openness and multiculturalism, so the recession’s effects are giving rise to widespread doubt in what, even a couple of years ago, were the most basic tenets of our society.
As the state has been forced to rescue failing enterprises, there have been strong calls to use these newly nationalised sectors of the economy as engines of social change. The current uncertainty is magnified as interest groups mass to force their agendas on an economy newly subject to gusts of political populism – most disturbingly in the new wave of strikes for ‘British jobs for British workers’, now starting to be accompanied by shadowy murmurs about the ‘indigenous population’ by some in the major parties.
For new graduates, one of the most worrying aspects of the changing world will be the impact on jobs. With graduate vacancies soon to be at a premium, the danger is that your connections – who you know – will start to count for more than what you know. Our meritocracy, dependent on economic growth, will struggle to survive this creeping corruption. While the end of the irrational bonus structures that caused so much chaos is to be welcomed, the financial crisis may bring with it a general aversion to new ideas. When a graduate recruiter is discouraged from hiring bright young things with bold ideas in favour of a safe pair of hands, offering the opening to his golf partner’s son becomes more appealing.
On a global level, the picture is more mixed. The new US President may be a principled pragmatist with an uncommonly silver tongue, but the brand of hope that briefly united the States at his inauguration is already starting to look tarnished as he realises he too must fight the same old partisan battles. China and Russia, previously competing to wrest power away from America, are now facing challenges to their authoritarianism and corruption as the growth dies away, leaving the rich astronomically richer and those at the bottom with little to show for their countries’ periods of economic success.
In short, the outlook is bleak, with few signs for hope at home or abroad, as the entire system today’s students grew up with and imagined they would inherit faces a raft of new difficulties and restrictions, many of which were unimaginable even five years ago. The world is entering a state of flux, where new ideas will emerge, and those no longer applicable to the modern world will be forced out as we come to terms with the rotten underside of the world in which we grew up.
Losing any of the benefits of the boom years would be a great shame: a world where people and cultures mix less often, where cronyism is the way to get a graduate job, and where new ideas are rejected in favour of continuity, is in nobody’s interests. In large part, it will be up to today’s graduates to find a way to balance our desires to hold on to our achievements with the need to prevent their most harmful effects. We may have just seen the end of a golden age – but ruminating about its passing won’t help us get it back.

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