Kristian Niemietz: Don’t underestimate the political power of the Millennial Socialist

26 Aug

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Political Economy at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

“Hey guys, wanna feel old? I’m 40. You’re welcome”, Macaulay Culkin – the actor who is most famous for having played the role of Kevin McCallister in the Christmas classics Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2 (1992) – tweeted last summer. His tweet received over half a million retweets, and over three million likes, presumably because it created a nice bit of cognitive dissonance in the minds of millions of people.

If, like me, you have been watching the movies every Christmas for as long as you can remember – something in your mind will militate against picturing “Kevin” as a middle-aged man. It just does not compute. The more rational part of your brain will be quite capable of working out that 2020 minus 1980 equals 40, but that will not stop the more intuitive part of your brain from screaming: No, Kevin is a boy! He cannot be 40! 

Something a bit like that has happened, collectively, to the Millennial generation as a whole, albeit more as a result of a semantic confusion. If Google Books Ngram Viewer is anything to go by, the word “Millennials” entered the English language at the end of the 1990s, and then began to take off in the mid-2000s. At some point, probably soon after, “Millennials” simply became a synonym for “very young people”.

At the time, this was, of course, entirely correct. Millennials are people who were born between the early 1980s and the mid-to-late 1990s, which means that when the term entered popular usage, the oldest Millennials were in their mid-20s, and the youngest ones were still children.

However, linguistic conventions, once established, develop inertia, and become hard to shift, even as the reality they try to describe changes. Today, the term “Millennial” still has the same connotations it had one and a half decades ago, but the people it describes have not stayed as young as they were then. Hey guys, wanna feel old? Some Millennials are 40. You’re welcome.

This is not just a matter of linguistic pedantry. The fact that we still use “Millennials” and “young people” synonymously seems to be causing some real confusion. As I show in my recent IEA report Left Turn Ahead?, over the past five years or so, there have been a flurry of surveys showing a rising popularity of socialist ideas among Millennials (as well as, increasingly, Generation Z). A generation, if not two generations, has turned against capitalism.

If you hold the uncool, unfashionable “OK Boomer” opinion that capitalism is a lot better than its reputation, this should be a cause for concern for you. And yet, oddly, people on the pro-capitalist side of the argument have not shown much interest in the rise of “Millennial Socialism”.

They usually brush it aside with phrases such as “The young have always gone through a socialist phase”, “They will grow out of it”, “It’s easy to be a socialist as long as mummy and daddy pay your bills”, “Wait until they start working”, “Wait until they start paying tax”, “Wait until they enter the real world”, and so on.

People who dismiss the rise of Millennial Socialism in this way seem to be picturing somebody in their late teens or early twenties. Because Millennials are 20 years old, and Kevin is a boy, right?

But what the survey data really shows is that socialist ideas are still just as popular among people in their early 40s as they are among people in their late teens. This does not mean that those views are set in stone, and that the Millennial generation is a lost cause for supporters of the market economy.

But it does mean that Millennial Socialism cannot be dismissed as an expression of youthful naivete, a lack of real-world experience, or as a passing phase. Rather, among politically engaged Millennials, socialist opinions have become default opinions. Default positions can be changed, but only with active efforts. They do not change on their own.

At the moment, Baby Boomers and the preceding generation – generations which tend to be more sceptical of socialist ideas – still outnumber Millennials and adult members of Generation Z. But already over the course of this decade, that lead is going to disappear, and turn into a solid Zoomer-Millennial majority.

If I were Jeremy Corbyn, I would try my luck again in a few years’ time. If demographics is destiny, the future belongs to the socialists.

Emily Carver: Politicians’ refusal to discuss NHS reform is cowardly at best and sinister at worst

10 Mar

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The recent furore over the proposed one per cent pay rise for NHS staff has served as yet another reminder of just how toxic and claustrophobic public debate over our health service has become.

Unsurprisingly, the press framed the Government’s decision as a callous attack on nurses (despite the fact that the pay rise would apply across-the-board), the unions slammed the “pitiful” increase as “the worst kind of insult” to NHS workers and threatened strike action, while the opposition rallied to demand justice for our “Covid heroes”. All very predictable. But while the headlines may have been foreseeable, it is still troubling to see how little room there is for rational discussion when it comes to “our NHS”.

First, it doesn’t take much digging to discover that the headline figure of one per cent is misleading. The wage banding system for NHS staff – as with most of the public sector – allows for regular incremental wage rises; and overtime payments and extra allowances for staff in London and the South East are also built into the system. The problem is that the way staff are remunerated appears arbitrary and allows little room for targeted or performance-based pay rises.

In an institution, which employs 1.3 million people, this is not only an inefficient way of using taxpayers’ money, but a rather unfair and possibly demotivating method for deciding pay. Few would disagree that pay should ideally reflect contribution and performance, rather than rely on national pay bargaining. It is distinctly disingenuous to claim that every single employee in the NHS, regardless of their role, responsibility or competence, deserves the exact same increase.

For now, fundamental change in the way we decide NHS pay is likely to be placed on the backburner, along with reforms to many other areas of public policy. Far simpler for ministers to slap an NHS badge on their lapel and squabble over how many extra billions we should pump into the behemoth this year. Why risk the inevitable backlash that comes with calling for more substantial reform?

It was only a few weeks ago that the IEA’s relatively innocuous briefing paper Viral Myths, which challenged the idea that the NHS has been a “star performer” during the pandemic, triggered explosive media coverage. The fact that the paper made it clear that it was talking about the institution rather than the staff mattered very little when the opportunity arose for politicians and commentators to make incendiary remarks – see Angela Rayner’s public outburst for a particularly wearying display of point-scoring.

It is clear that much of the political class would rather pander to the narrative of the NHS as the “envy of the world” than stick their head above the parapet and dare to suggest we might have something to learn from international best practice.

But this is cowardly at best and sinister at worst when you consider that the NHS consistently ranks in the bottom third in international comparisons of health system performance, which, to our shame, translates into thousands of unnecessarily lost lives each year. Failing to implement – or even entertain the notion of – change helps no-one, aside from perhaps a handful who use it for cheap populism. Reform would not undermine hard-working staff, quite the opposite. Releasing frontline staff from the broken system they are trapped within would be a mark of respect and gratitude.

In the months to come, the case for reform will strengthen. As immediate pressure from Covid patients eases, it is doubtful the NHS will breathe a sigh of relief. It has been estimated that as many as six million “hidden” patients could join the queue for NHS treatment in the coming months, which could see waiting lists reach eight million by October this year. The reported rise in the number of people now booking private appointments suggests that the public are growing increasingly aware that the service is in poor health, and increasingly impatient at how long it takes to get the treatment they need. If this trend continues, as is surely inevitable, it is not inconceivable that resentment will start to bubble at the vast sums funnelled towards an unreformed NHS.

Although the pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in the NHS, people appear intolerant to change. Such is the potency of the two rhetorical strawmen devotees of our healthcare system are able to erect: first, that criticism of the institution is tantamount to criticism of its workers and second, that the only alternative to our universal provision is the American system. But perhaps, as the trauma of the pandemic eases, their resolve may soften. Either way, our representatives owe it to us (let’s remember the NHS budget is likely to reach a colossal £200 billion this year) to engage in sensible discussions over reform.

It is simply unacceptable that it is now the norm for patients to wait months and months for routine operations – as was the case even before the pandemic struck. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world; it should be a national scandal that our health service produces health outcomes more similar to that of the Czech Republic and Slovenia than of Switzerland or Belgium, both of which, it is important to stress, benefit from universal market-based healthcare systems.

The burden on the NHS in the months and years to come may be unlike anything we have yet experienced. The Government speaks of a global Britain, but this must include a willingness to learn from other countries, and healthcare should be no exception. Those hackneyed arguments that any failings are down to underfunding, or that the only other choice besides the NHS is the US model, are borderline insulting to a voting public who have sacrificed so much over the past year to “protect the NHS”.