Never say that capitalism has no long-term aim. It does. Capitalists simply want to stay in power until the Earth is swallowed up by the Sun. Yet most of the time they have no thought for the future beyond making as much profit as possible in the current financial year. No wonder the system has no time for educating or training young people who would make them profits in future – that would be too much like a strategy.
When modern capital was born in the Industrial Revolution, it fed on children – children as young as four or five. Six-year-olds were commonly working 12 to 14 hours a day with minimal breaks, earning a small fraction of the adult wage. Orphans were paid nothing, just food and board. It’s a measure of how dire things were that the Factory Act of 1833 stipulated that children of 8 and under could not work in a factory, and that those aged between 9 and 13 could work no longer than eight hours a day. And that was progress!
Now capitalism doesn’t seem to be interested in employing young people at all. The minimum wage has become, for most young people in Britain, a maximum, but that’s still too much for many employers. According to the Office for National Statistics, in the three months to July this year 716,000 (20.3 per cent) of 16- to 24-year-olds not in education were unemployed.
Even education is considered too expensive. Hence the £9,000 annual fee level, set as a maximum but predictably enough the norm. You might think that Britain would benefit from broad uptake of university places. Yet the fees fiasco has resulted in tens of thousands fewer new students this autumn than last – including, astonishingly, 5,000 empty places at Russell Group universities.
In an act of treachery to young people, these were the very universities that were pushing for high fees in the first place. In the past some of them were saying fees should go up over £20,000. Maybe even these universities can see that if that were to happen, they would start running out of students altogether.
Only under capitalism could we have too many educated people. Only a capitalist government would see rising GCSE exam success as an outrage, and instruct its obedient servants to revise grade boundaries to “lower” achievement. Now it’s going one step further: the new EBacc will leave many young people with no grades at all, just a useless “statement of achievement”.
There is one aspect of young people that does interest capitalism – the potential to get them into a lifetime of debt. An online survey by the voluntary organisation YouthNet reported last year that the greatest fear for young people is now debt (in a comparable survey in 2008 the top fear was death). Therein lies the main attraction of student loans and fees, ideal vehicles for ensuring that today’s young people are subsidising finance capital for decades to come. ■