An economic slowdown is not something that Britain should take lightly or with arrogant optimism.
The latest developments in UK politics have shown the determination of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to deliver Brexit in time, deal or no-deal. Even though Brexit is facing strong opposition, with hundreds of people protesting outside Westminster and calling the Parliament suspension an attack on democracy, the United Kingdom seems to be marching steadily towards its exit from the EU. Moreover, with less than two months until October 31st — the assumed final deadline for Brexit — it will be very difficult for the Prime Minister to negotiate a new deal, and so the probability of a hard Brexit is at an all-time high.
Such a drastic departure would have enormous consequences both for the UK and for the Eurozone, influencing economics, immigration, and many other sectors. Even though exact predictions on the consequences of a no-deal Brexit remain complicated, scholars have long been warning politicians and citizens of the likely effects of such an outcome on the country’s financial stability.
Moreover, influential newspapers like The Guardian and The Financial Times have recently published data regarding the status of the UK economy, and they all seem to point in the same direction: a recession is looming over the country, and a no-deal Brexit could aggravate and extend an eventual economic crisis. Indeed, according to the Financial Times, the UK economic output is already shrinking, with business investment slowing down and a sharp decline in manufacturing. Borders-related problems, market instability, and the general uncertainty that would come from a no-deal Brexit would only worsen the economic situation.
Coming from Italy, a country that has been struggling against economic turmoil for a decade, slipping in and out recession multiple times, I can’t possibly understand how anyone would want to plunge their country into a similar situation. The only possibility is that many British people don’t realise the profound impact that a prolonged economic crisis can have on the state of a country, especially its youngest generations. Probably, many UK citizens see a recession as an obstacle that can be overcome by working harder and limiting expenses, and for many Brexiteers retaining sovereignty and independence from the EU is worth the sacrifice. However, the effects of economic disruptions go well beyond finances and money-problems, especially as far as young people are concerned.
I first heard the word ‘crisis’ in 2008, when I was eleven years old. On the TV, many serious people were talking about the US, but soon Italy got caught in the trouble too. From that moment and for the next ten years, the disastrous state of Italian economics became a central topic of discussion not only in the newspapers but also at school and during free time. Fortunately, Italy didn’t suffer the extreme chaos and economic turmoil that abruptly hit Greece, and many of my classmates, including myself, didn’t experience the sudden weight of economic hardship. However, financial instability and delayed growth hit the youth in a much more subtle way: during the extremely delicate moments of transition from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood. Young Italians were surrounded by a climate of insecurity and confusion, which influenced some of their most important life choices.
For example, an investigation by La Repubblica, one of Italy’s most notorious newspapers, revealed that between 2005 and 2015, enrolments to the faculties of Philosophy, History, and Sociology in Italy fell respectively by 22 per cent, 37 per cent, and 45 per cent; while faculties like Chemistry and Engineering registered an increase in matriculations. This didn’t happen because Italians suddenly discovered a profound disgust towards humanities, but because with youth unemployment skyrocketing and reaching more than 35 per cent, there was almost no chance of finding a job with a Liberal Arts degree. Thousands of people that genuinely loved Literature or Art History felt the pressure to abandon that passion and to dedicate themselves to something more practical, not because they lacked finances or needed a job immediately, but because they were scared about a future of inactivity and frustration. At the same time, those students who decided to follow their dreams often had to battle with anxiety and insecurity about their studies. A recurrent joke between humanities students from every Italian university is that at the next Career Day they will be introduced to some kind of cleaning company. As a Philosophy graduate, I used to laugh at this joke myself, trying to ignore the familiar gut punch that came with it.
The economic slowdown had an influence also on the mental health of young adults, as achieving concrete independence became harder and harder. After 2008 the possibilities of moving out, buying a home, or starting a family were highly reduced, not only because of the difficulties in getting a mortgage and the cuts to family benefits, but because people were put off by unsecure fixed-term jobs, or by the possibility of their company crashing overnight. The constant instability that came with the crisis made choices like having a baby much more difficult to make, even for those people who weren’t struggling financially. This situation often made people feel trapped in an endless adolescence, unable to make any progress.
It’s important to recognise that economic turmoil will have a different impact on young people compared with more mature citizens. Usually, older generations have to face increases in commodity prices and a reduction in purchasing power, and they can undoubtedly go through great struggles with some of them losing what they had achieved in a lifetime. But they generally manage to preserve their identity, something they have built during a time of relative prosperity. When it comes to millennials who grew up during the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, many have interiorized the negative outlooks produced by economic instability — since they never had a chance to know any different. The confusion and feeling of hopelessness stemming from years of delayed growth, shaped their life and influenced their perception of the future, as well as the way in which they structured their lifestyles and careers. An economic crisis goes much further than limiting a young person’s possibilities in terms of finances; it affects every single important decision of their lives — often without them realising it.
As the last days of negotiations approach, and the debate about Brexit gets more heated, politicians and voters must reflect on the impact of an eventual economic crisis on British youth. Otherwise, every evaluation regarding the pros and cons of a no-deal Brexit will be inevitably biased, as it will ignore the serious non-monetary consequences that the younger generations will have to bear during their lifetime.