Young, gifted

The world’s young are an op­pressed mi­nor­ity that needs to be un­leashed

Nairobi Law Monthly - - Briefing - (The Econ­o­mist)

In the world of “The Hunger Games” young­sters are forced to fight to the death for the amuse­ment of their white­haired rulers. To­day’s teen fic­tion is re­lent­lessly dystopian, but the gap be­tween fan­tasy and re­al­ity is of­ten nar­rower than you might think. The older gen­er­a­tion may not re­sort to out­right mur­der but, in im­por­tant ways they hold their ju­niors down.

Roughly a quar­ter of the world’s peo­ple—some 1.8 bil­lion—have turned 15 but not yet reached 30. In many ways, they are the luck­i­est group of young adults ever to have ex­isted. They are richer than any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, and live in a world with­out small­pox or Mao Ze­dong. They are the best-ed­u­cated gen­er­a­tion ever—haitians to­day spend longer in school than Ital­ians did in 1960. Thanks to all that ex­tra learn­ing and to bet­ter nutri­tion, they are also more in­tel­li­gent than their el­ders. If they are fe­male or gay, they en­joy greater free­dom in more coun­tries than their pre­de­ces­sors would have thought pos­si­ble. And they can look for­ward to im­prove­ments in tech­nol­ogy that will, say, en­able many of them to live well past 100. So what, ex­actly, are they com­plain­ing about? Th­ese chil­dren that you spit on Plenty. Just as, for the first time in his­tory, the world’s young­sters form a com­mon cul­ture, so they also share the same youth­ful griev­ances. Around the world, young peo­ple gripe that it is too hard to

find a job and a place to live, and that the path to adult­hood has grown longer and more com­pli­cated.

Many of their woes can be blamed on poli­cies favour­ing the old over the young. Con­sider em­ploy­ment. In many coun­tries, labour laws re­quire firms to of­fer co­pi­ous ben­e­fits and make it hard to lay work­ers off. That suits those with jobs, who tend to be older, but it makes firms re­luc­tant to hire new staff. The losers are the young. In most re­gions, they are at least twice as likely as their el­ders to be un­em­ployed. The early years of any ca­reer are the worst time to be idle, be­cause th­ese are when the work habits of a life­time be­come in­grained. Those un­em­ployed in their 20s typ­i­cally still feel the “scar­ring” ef­fects of lower in­come, as well as un­hap­pi­ness, in their 50s.

Hous­ing, too, is of­ten rigged against the young. Home­own­ers dom­i­nate the bod­ies that de­cide whether new houses may be built. They of­ten say no, so as not to spoil the view and re­duce the value of their own prop­erty. Over-regulation has dou­bled the cost of a typ­i­cal home. Its ef­fects are even worse in many of the big cities around the world where young peo­ple most want to live. Rents and home prices in such places have far out­paced in­comes. The young­sters of Kuala Lumpur are known as the “home­less gen­er­a­tion”. Young Amer­i­can women are more likely to live with their par­ents or other rel­a­tives than at any time since the Se­cond World War.

Young peo­ple are of­ten foot­loose. With the whole world to ex­plore and noth­ing to tie them down, they move around more of­ten than their el­ders. This makes them more pro­duc­tive, es­pe­cially if they mi­grate from a poor coun­try to a rich one. By one es­ti­mate, global GDP would dou­ble if peo­ple could move about freely. That is po­lit­i­cally im­pos­si­ble — in­deed, the mood in rich coun­tries is turn­ing against im­mi­gra­tion.

But it is strik­ing that so many gov­ern­ments dis­cour­age not only cross-bor­der mi­gra­tion but also the do­mes­tic sort. China’s hukou sys­tem treats ru­ral folk who move to cities as se­cond-class cit­i­zens. In­dia makes it hard for those who move from one state to an­other to ob­tain pub­lic ser­vices. A UN study found that 80 per cent of coun­tries had poli­cies to re­duce ru­ral-ur­ban mi­gra­tion, al­though much of hu­man progress has come from peo­ple putting down their hoes and find­ing bet­ter jobs in the big smoke. All th­ese bar­ri­ers to free move­ment es­pe­cially harm the young, be­cause they most want to move.

The old have al­ways sub­sidised their ju­niors. Within fam­i­lies, they still do. But many gov­ern­ments favour the old: an ever greater share of pub­lic spend­ing goes on pen­sions and health care for them. This is partly the nat­u­ral re­sult of so­ci­eties age­ing, but it is also be­cause the el­derly en­sure that poli­cies work in their favour. By one cal­cu­la­tion, the net flow of re­sources (pub­lic plus pri­vate) is now from young to old in at least five coun­tries, in­clud­ing Ger­many and Hun­gary. This is un­prece­dented and un­just—the old are richer.

The young could do more to stand up for them­selves. In Amer­ica just over a fifth of 18- to 34-year-olds turned out to vote in the lat­est gen­eral elec­tion; three-fifths of over 65s did. It is the same in In­done­sia and only slightly bet­ter in Ja­pan. It is not enough for the young to sign on­line pe­ti­tions. If they want gov­ern­ments to lis­ten, they should vote.

The rem­edy is easy to pre­scribe—and hard to en­act. Gov­ern­ments should un­leash the young by cut­ting the red tape that keeps them out of jobs, and curb­ing the power of prop­erty-own­ers to stop homes from be­ing built. They should scrap re­stric­tions on do­mes­tic mi­gra­tion and al­low more cross-bor­der move­ment. They should make education a pri­or­ity.

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