In the UK and other parts of the Western world, the notion that we are progressing towards a better future has been a consistent, if not entirely uninterrupted, ideal. But in recent years, this idea seems to be changing and it doesn’t bode well for a future that’s more socially equal.
The combination of the global financial crisis, the emergence of rival economies, particularly in Asia, and the increasingly significant threat of climate change has resulted in people questioning whether the future will necessarily be better.
Even as our economies seem to be recovering and we move out of recession, the experience of the last few years, the financial crisis and the enduring legacy of austerity policy cannot be erased. As Paul Mason notes in The Guardian, a recent OECD report on policy challenges for the next 50 years has a clear message:
For the rich countries, the best of capitalism is over. For the poor ones – now experiencing the glitter and haze of industrialisation – it will be over by 2060.
And this view of the future as depleted is not only expressed in the economic realm.
Writing on climate change, sociologist John Urry states: “The 20th century has left a bleak legacy for the new century, with a very limited range of possible future scenarios.” Health experts warn of a number of impending crises, ranging from obesity to ageing and dementia.
The UK’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg honed in on this view of the bleak future for Britain’s youth, in his 2011 end of conference speech. In it, he described the riots of that summer as the consequence of young people who had “lost touch with their own future”. And, in spite of the latest statistics showing numbers are down for young people not in education, employment or training, he makes a very salient point.
Polls across Western, developed countries have shown a significant shift toward pessimistic attitudes about the future. There have been large increases in people believing it was unlikely that today’s youth would have a better life than their parents. And there is consensus among young and old that this is the case for future generations, even in countries whose economies survived recent years with relative success, such as Sweden and Germany.
Young people’s futures are seen as particularly vulnerable. High levels of unemployment and zero-hour contracts, rises in university tuition fees, and policies such as the bedroom tax all affect young people, casting their futures as indebted. This raises concern of a “lost generation”.
Indeed, as Lisa Adkins suggests, across Europe, political movements against austerity draw attention to dwindling opportunities for young people in the future. In Spain, the Youth Without a Future movement is protesting against youth unemployment rates of 55%, and in Greece, austerity measures have led some to give up on the idea of a better future.
And it’s not just the youth who are affected. “I wish I could hope for a better future,” retired salesperson George Constantinidis told McClatchy newspapers after riots in 2012. “But Greece is just living day to day”. With growing life expectancies, the future for older generations matters a great deal too.
Social scientists are very good at scrutinising how inequality is organised and reproduced spatially. Where people live, where they migrate to, which schools, universities and workplaces they go to; all of these spaces are analysed in terms of the possibilities – or not – of social mobility.
But what we also need to consider is how inequality is more intangible. Inequality is produced and reinforced through people’s access to different kinds of futures, and through the kinds of futures that it is possible for them to imagine as well as inhabit.
What we need to pay attention to, then, is how the idea of having “no future” is likely to affect some people more than others. Alongside physical environments, the aspect of imagination – whether it is possible to imagine a future or not in the context of austerity – is fundamentally important in shaping the way that society becomes more or less equal.
Rebecca Coleman receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.