Mobile phones are bloody brilliant, aren’t they? From inauspicious beginnings in the 1980s, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve come. Take mine, for instance. I can use it to send emails, access sat nav, download music, sell all my worldly goods on Ebay … in fact, I even used it to start writing this very post. It’s fantastic, isn’t it? You start to wonder if there’s anything a mobile phone can’t do. I mean, it can’t give you money or opportunities or choices, or even a roof over your head. But to be honest, that doesn’t matter. Because in lieu of that, it provides everyone with an excuse as to why you shouldn’t have that anyway. This is particularly true if you’re young.
You might think young people today are having something of a shit time. The qualifications they’ve worked for are mocked and discredited; further education saddles them with decades of debt; apprenticeships pay them a pittance, while an entry-level job is now an “internship” on no pay at all; most young people will never own a home, but can no longer claim support to live somewhere that isn’t theirs; they’re told not to reproduce when they’re young but not to leave it till they’re old; they will start their adult lives in debt and end them in poverty. But hey, sod all that. Just look at them: they’ve all got mobile phones!
Many’s the time that I’ve heard the “mobile phone” argument. Young people, so it goes, cannot really be suffering because they’ve all got mobiles, and we didn’t all have mobiles in my day. This is usually said by someone who was young at a time when mobiles weren’t even invented. This is someone who thinks of mobiles as a luxury item, rather than as something that costs £10 a month. Said person tends to be oblivious as to what the real luxury items are these days: a job and a home. After all, jobs and homes are just what most “decent” people of his or her generation had. And that’s because the previous generation were fucking tops. They didn’t piss around spending all their money on phones. Think of all the mortgages you could get with that £10 a month!
In yesterday’s Guardian, Ros Altman offered her own version of the ‘mobile phone’ argument in a piece entitled “It’s only fair that older people are better off than the young. They’ve earned it”. Ros doesn’t have a problem with the fact that the older generation have all the houses and money, while the young only have their phones. In fact, it’s a good thing that they do; a concentration of wealth in the elderly is just what we need to keep us all “aspirational”:
If we consider it wrong that older generations are better off than the young, then society sends the message that any workers who manage to save and better themselves will end up having the money taken away later. Who would then save or aspire to a better later life? Of course the very wealthy must pay their share, but the average pensioner in the early part of their retirement should surely expect to be better off than younger counterparts.
Of course, this misses an essential point, in that house prices and current wages prevent young people from saving at all. Young people are not stupid, not even with their mickey mouse GCSEs; they know that when they are old, they will not have managed to “better themselves” (and what a horrible term that is; as if to be wealthier is to be “better”). Young people cannot be self-sufficient workers in the way that their parents were; they cannot simply find a job that will pay the rent and move on up. The government even acknowledges this, with its drive to push them back into the parental home.
Ros also asks the following questions regarding age and money:
Why would those who have not yet spent 40 or 50 years working expect to have higher incomes and wealth than those who have? Should young people, not far into their working career, who have not yet saved much and have debts, be better off than those at the end of many decades of work?
It’s an interesting question, or at least it would be if it had any basis in reality. The problem is, young people – and older people – already know that the older generation are not just richer now. They were already richer the moment they started their working lives. Hence all the crap about mobile phones, the focus on technology which is cheap, as if to offset the absence of essentials which others used to take for granted.
I see this disparity in my own family. You may (but probably won’t) be interested to know, Ros, that even though I am only 37 and have pissed away my twenties studying for a PhD (a worse indulgence than a mobile phone), I have already clocked up more years of full-time work than my mother, now in her sixties, ever did. And I am in no way as wealthy as she was at 37. And while you could argue that this is because my father had a better paid job than my partner does, the truth is, he only became a barrister in his late forties. He left school with two 0-levels and worked his way up slowly. Leave school with so few qualifications these days, and face it, your life’s pretty much over, and there’s no way back.
I don’t resent my parents having what they have because they’ve simply done what I would have done in their place. I resent, slightly, the fact that I don’t have the same time and experiences to share with my own children. I’m not there straight after school. I don’t take them on foreign holidays. We’ll probably never move to a “nice area”. These are all things that my mother, who gave up paid employment at 26, was able to do. None of these things are a right. I don’t deserve them. I am happy, and I think my children are happy, without them. But what really pisses me off is the intimation that I, and others like me, are therefore less successful than our elders. That somehow we’ve failed and slipped down the social scale, when actually, we’ve just done what others did and received less in return.
Anyhow, I’m not that young. And I got on the housing ladder. And I have a job. Sometimes I feel like Indiana Jones, slipping out of the Temple of Doom just before the door came crashing down. Only I’m a depleted Indiana Jones. I didn’t quite get enough time to grab my hat.
It’s not that I think being old today is ace. My nan’s in her nineties and she’s bloody brilliant, but she is also extremely eloquent when it comes to explaining how totally rubbish being old actually is. You are constantly tired and plagued by ill-health. You are lonely because all of your contemporaries are dropping like flies. You fear death, but you also half-want it to come because you know things will never, ever get better. You will never feel healthier and your friends will never come back. It is monumentally awful, and, unless we’re unfortunate enough to die young, it will happen to us all. But that’s the thing. It happens to us all, and in that respect, we’re all equal. It’s everything else that’s become completely unbalanced. If I were old, I’d feel envious of the young. But from here in the middle, I can’t help but feel pity in both directions.
I don’t know what I’d advise a young person today. If I were 18, I think I’d probably spontaneously combust with rage. You’d find just a pile of ashes, some shoes and, obviously, a mobile phone. And then people would say, ah well, she had a good life. Didn’t have mobile phones in my day.