Austerity's Children

Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Austerity's Children


How do you define a generation?

Not easily. With countless exceptions and contentions, the characterization of an era is a project for the masochist. It is an endeavor far easier to criticize than to realize. This point proves especially true when one seeks to define the present generation, as tire task is undertaken without the benefit of hindsight. Xeverthe-less, characterizing the present era offers the social sciences a useful opportunity to gauge what the future holds for politics, economics, and society.

Thus, the task of definition necessarily begins with the temporal element. No generation can be defined without mentioning the time in which it occurred. But time merely provides the framework for such a definition. It is not enough to say that people came of age during the 1950s. More is needed.

Shared experience determine the characterization of any era. A common generational identity only arises out of a series of phenomena that evoke a similar response from a critical mass of a certain age group. I lence, the 1960s in the United States are defined by the liberalizing nature of the hippie movement. The voting men and women who came of age during the 1960s experienced the sterility of the previous decade and chose to counter those conservative mores. The 1960s would not have witnessed such sweeping changes in sexual practices, drug use, and political activism had it not been for the stifling conformity of the 1950s. History swings like a pendulum, with every political, social, and economic development providing the impetus for some later movement. With this in mind, we can say that the events and prevailing norms of today will shape policy outcomes and attitudes in the decades to come.

Now consider the basket case that is contemporary Europe.

Across the continent, governments have dramatically reduced public expenditure. The fever of austerity has taken hold. Along the Mediterranean, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain have all responded to the sovereign debt crisis with immense reductions in spending. A cruise up the North Atlantic reveals that Ireland and the United Kingdom have also followed suit. Edward Scissor hands might as well be the European minister for finance. Slashing budgets has never been so popular.

But these reductions in public expenditure have come at a very high cost. Never before has the European welfare state been under such a direct attack. The cuts in public jobs, health care coverage, education, and virtually every other entitlement have increased the hardship felt by a diverse array of elements within society. The public has responded with protests--in some cases riots--to stand up to the governmental (and the Ell's supranational) measures. In Spain, students and union members protest alongside one another. In Greece, pensioners and parents lament cuts in health care coverage. In Ireland, entrepreneurs and business owners suffer from a lack of credit. While each country faces a unique set of challenges, it would be a mistake to describe hardship simply in a national context. Staggcringly high unemployment, poorer health care coverage, and decreasing educational investment, are not just Greek problems. They aren't just Spanish problems. They aren't just Portuguese problems. They have become European problems. And intensely personal European problems at that.

Spending cuts now bear a greater burden on Europeans than any time in recent: memory. We have entered the age of austerity, and what of the young people growing up today?

They are Austerity's Children.

Traumatic events do not simply push the pendulum of history to the left or right. They have the capacity to move the entire pivot on which the pendulum relies, amending the spectrum of political possibility. Consider how the Second World War initiated a program of European integration that would have been unthinkable in the pre-war context, in which the nation-state was seen as the ultimate level of political organization. …

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