Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have not spent decades currying favour with powerful, wealthy lobbyists in the hope of an inexorable rise to power. On the contrary, they seem to have done everything possible to lessen the likelihood of such a rise. Two grey-haired, relatively underfunded outliers have come to the forefront of the political debate on both sides of the Atlantic seemingly against all odds. The rise of the unlikely left candidate has to be seen as a spontaneous sign of utter despair in two of the wealthiest nations of the world. There can be no other explanation for it.
The main impetus behind this development has come from younger voters. Not long ago the political apathy of the young was the subject of derision. The young were deemed to be self-serving, distracted by technology, and hedonistic. So what has changed? In Britain, as in the USA, the life chances for the vast majority of the population have diminished significantly in recent decades. There has been a marked shift in wealth towards the top, less-than-one-percent, of the population. Those who are home-owners, who have the benefit of generous, final-salary pension schemes, or who have managed to hang on to, or accumulate, financial assets over their lifetimes, have fared better than the rest. Self-evidently, the relatively young are the least likely to fit this profile.
The young have also done badly from lessening of job security and from a poor hourly rate of pay. A recent study conducted by Professor Huws at the University of Hertfordshire illustrates the ways in which the labour market has changed in the UK in recent years. He outlines the rise of ‘crowd workers’ paid through online platforms. Casual labour used to be applauded for suiting the needs of students seeking summer employment, or of housewives seeking part time employment during school hours as a secondary source of income. Today up to 5 million employees are classed as ‘casual workers’, and that number seems likely to continue to grow. From cleaners to delivery drivers, from tree surgeons to plumbers, these workers find themselves not knowing from one day to the next whether they have work that day or not.
Crowd workers tend to be young, aged between 25 and 34. These workers lack in-work benefits, such as sick pay, holiday pay, pension arrangements or minimum wage guarantees, and they have to tolerate a precarious existence. Without secure pay, and lacking financial assets to draw on, the likelihood of falling into debt, forced, at the mercy of loan sharks to pay disproportionately higher rates of interest, is high. Those without equity suffer interest rate apartheid, making it ever harder for them to ever be able to accumulate assets.
In addition to suffering from uncertainty in their weekly wage packet young people who took the time to attend university find themselves saddled with large amounts of student debt. In the UK college fees have been relentlessly rising towards those charged in the USA. The rate of return on the time and money it takes to go to college is not as high as it once was, particularly for those students not able to get into the best courses at the top universities. It is also harder for young people to get onto the housing ladder. The Joseph Roundtree Foundation reports that in Britain in the late 1990s it took 3 years on an average salary to save for the deposit on a home, today it takes 22 years.
In sum, conditions for the young have deteriorated sharply. It is no wonder then that they are increasingly engaged in politics and that they look for candidates to represent the interests of working people, saddled with debt, without any offsetting financial assets, unable to get onto the housing market, paying exorbitant rents to unregulated landlords.
One has to hope that democracy will play its part in correcting the imbalance that has been imposed on young working people. If it fails we are likely to see gated communities of millionaire-mansions surrounded by shanty towns of service providers in London. The rise of the unlikely left-leaning candidate is, even now, barely convincing, but it is the best hope we have of bringing about much needed social and economic change on both sides of the Atlantic.