ANYONE who has read this column fairly regularly will be familiar with my background and my tales of childhood poverty. Glaswegians of my background love to have a morbid laugh about our experiences of deprivation.
One friend of my mine who grew up in Possil used to draw a face on a ginger bottle and wrap it in a dish towel to pretend it was doll. Then she would throw a tantrum when her mum took the bottle back to the shop to collect the deposit.
These stories were always underpinned by an assumption that we had left behind forever the bad old days. Things were moving upwards – and each new generation would have a better life than their parents.
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When I left school in the early 1980s, Thatcherism had already started to build a fair bit of momentum. The buroo queues were growing longer, and I instantly became, in the words of the song I Am The One in Ten by reggae band UB40 – who were named after the unemployment registration card – “a statistic, a reminder, of a world that doesn’t care.”
But at least I was able, at the age of 16, to collect a fortnightly unemployment benefit cheque of £34.80 – £133 in today’s money. I gave my mum £30 and kept £4.80 for myself.
Thatcher’s solution to youth unemployment was the Youth Training Scheme. I was offered a fortnight’s placement on the scheme at a private dental surgery in Glasgow for £25 a week, if my memory serves me right. I was let loose on people’s mouths armed with the big suction machine, and pestled the amalgam for folk’s mercury fillings.
I worked hard – but there was another batch of cheap labour waiting to replace me, so the training led to nothing.
I’d also applied to the council for a YTS. But the union, Nalgo, pressurised the then Strathclyde Regional Council into employing me, and others, on standard contracts and salaries.
I had grown up in a freezing house with ice inside the windows in the winter, wearing shoes with holes in the soles and, on some days, eating for my dinner a tin of Ambrosia Creamed Rice. Yet at age 17, I had managed to get a permanent full-time job, with decent wages and conditions.
So flip forward 35 years. The economy of the UK, measured by production of goods and services, has more than doubled since 1982. So why are we failing another generation? Why are almost 15 per cent of young people aged between 16 and 24 unemployed – the highest level for 20 years and not far short of the dark days of the early 1980s?
I know young people who’ve disciplined themselves into doing far more homework than I ever did. They took to heart the advice they were given, that if you stick in at school and study hard, your life will be sorted.
Many more of them went to university than my school friends of the 1980s. They are intelligent, talented and educated. And they are competing with one another for precarious, low-paid jobs in fast-food outlets and call centres.
Children who were bright, inquisitive and creative are forced to churn out multiple applications, ticking the boxes of a monochrome corporate world, in the slender hope that they might just manage to land a zero-hours contract for a few weeks before returning to square one.
Once again we are squandering the talents of a generation and storing up massive social problems for the future.
No wonder young people overwhelmingly spurned the claim by the British establishment parties that we’re Better Together. Admittedly some young people are doing just fine under David Cameron and George Osborne.
If you happen to be one of the privileged seven per cent who were educated at a private school, the same exam results will catapult you to the top of every leading profession. According to the Sutton Trust, a think tank that aims “to improve social mobility through education”, 74 per cent of top judges were privately educated and went to Oxbridge. Of our leading doctors, 61 per cent went to fee-paying schools.
This gross over-representation of the privileged classes is replicated at the top of every tree in Britain. Surely, it should be the opposite. If young people have the talent and resilience to battle through school in classes with 30-plus pupils and still get the grades, surely these are the sort of people any profession would be proud to be led by?
But most working-class youngsters don’t have a network of influential people to open locked doors for them. Nor do they have the money to undertake unpaid internships.
Some Beyonces and Kaydens of today might well end up with straight ‘A’s and double-first degrees – but they’ll still end up lower down the rung than the Henrys and Seraphinas with double-barrelled surnames like Darcy-Mandeville.
There’s something far wrong with a world that wastes young people like this. It will take fundamental change to end centuries of class privilege.
In the meantime, I’m all for a bit of pragmatic action. Providing your children with all the tools to help develop their brains, like reading to them, building things and giving them somewhere warm and comfortable to do their homework is undoubtedly helpful.
But maybe we’ll increase their chances more if we start giving our weans and bairns aristocratic names – preferably double or even triple barrelled ones – to confound and confuse the privileged classes and smuggle a few more state-educated young people into the top-notch jobs.
In Scotland, you can decide to call yourself anything you like...