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 the task is undertaken without the benefit of hindsight. Difficult as it may be, characterizing the present era offers the social sciences a useful predictive tool to gauge what the future holds for politics, economics, and society as a whole.
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 constitutes the determining factor in 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. Hence, the 1960s in the United States are defined by the liberalizing nature of the hippie movement. The young 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 with certainty 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. It is said Europe can no longer afford the luxuries of the welfare state. 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. Cruise up to the North Atlantic to see that Ireland and the United Kingdom have also followed suit. The lingua franca of Europe is no longer English. It’s cuts, cuts, and more cuts. Edward Scissorhands 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 EU’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. Staggeringly 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. No one in 1940 could have predicted that France and Germany would be working together to save the very existence of modern Europe. Or that a supranational body (the EU) would be passing legislation enforced throughout the continent. Or that a single currency, with a common market and no border protections would arise. Crisis bred an unforeseen and radical level of cooperation and integration.
In the decades to come, when austerity’s children do come of age, expect to see a similar response to this day’s increased hardship. Rather than tearing Europe apart, the crisis of the eurozone will bring the continent together. We are already seeing the beginnings of this phenomenon. The EU has been presented with a choice: abandon the European project of monetary union by kicking countries out of the eurozone or bailout the debtors (namely Greece) and save said project. Repeatedly, Europe has chosen the latter option of bailing out the debtors. One does, however, get the feeling that the political will for another Greek bailout borders on non-existent, particularly as sources suggest at least one more may be needed. The bailouts cannot go on ad infinitum, and any further financial support could spell the end of Europe’s generosity. The debt crisis does smack of a tragedy, albeit Shakespearean, not Greek. Europe’s seemingly reached a point of no return and following Lady MacBeth’s advice: once you’ve gone so far “returning would be as tedious as go o’er.” No resolution will be easy at this point.
Suffice it to say, a more integrated Europe does not necessarily hinge upon Greece’s continued use of the euro. Europe could very well abandon Greece to save the unified core, a risky strategy that some are no doubt mulling over this very minute. The original sin of the eurozone was that it promoted a monetary union without a unified fiscal policy. This crisis is currently serving to absolve that mistake with the EU standardizing fiscal policies and ensuring that countries adhere to the regulations laid forth by the troika of the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank. Oversight now exists within the realm of the EU, not the state. Countries have sacrificed sovereignty in the name of European unity and future financial health, giving the EU more supranational powers than ever before.
Greater European integration, while a crucial outcome of this crisis, would certainly be subservient in significance to the policy agenda of Austerity’s Children. Current austerity measures have condemned Europe to wallow in economic depression, significantly reducing the capacity of the welfare state to provide a base level of support for its citizens. In an interesting turn of history, the conservative United States followed the textbook of Keynesian economics, while the traditionally more liberal countries of Europe pursued the consummate strategy of the Right, budget cuts. The increased hardship Europeans now live through on a daily basis resulted from the inherent conservatism of austerity. This financial crisis and the subsequent age of austerity have the potential to once again shift the pivot on which the pendulum of history swings. That shift will undoubtedly be toward the Left.
From this crisis, we will not only see the further integration of Europe, but also the revitalization of the welfare state. Just as World War II forever altered the European landscape, the current malaise will reorient the continent toward the path of Progressivism, with the state ensuring a high quality of life for all citizens and insulating the populace from the perils of the market economy. Never again will Europeans want to go through the wrenching pain of austerity. Budget cuts will serve to renew Europeans belief in the universal right to health care, education, employment, and a high standard of living. Besides for increased regulation and tighter fiscal union, this crisis has proved above all else, the need for the strong safety net of social democracies. The Left in Europe is dormant, not dead. The goal for Austerity’s Children will be to awaken it.
Shared experience does not merely define a generation. It has the power to bind disparate groups; to make collective action possible. One of the criticisms leveled at the EU is that created “a Europe, without any Europeans.” Common regulation preceded common identification. The trauma of austerity may just rectify that defect, with that shared experience strengthening the bonds of the union and creating—what has long been missing—a common European identity. Austerity’s painful, no doubt, but its brood will fulfill the promise of a continent.
Photo Courtesy of the European Commission.