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The Unluckiest Generation? Not Necessarily

A worrisome belief is becoming pervasive across the Western world that the current generation of young people will be the first in modern history to have 'a lower standard of living than that of their parents'. Judged on purely economic criteria there is little to disagree with this statement. Youth unemployment is at catastrophic levels in Spain, Greece, the UK, France and the US. Students are graduating with increasing levels of educational debt in the UK and US. In other states such as Ireland and Italy immigration appears to be the only career option.

Yes the situation does appear grim but there are small, though definite, grounds for optimism on the future prospects for this generation of young people. Once you turn away from economics and look at social issues then the future is far more positive for young people. If you are a young woman or a young gay man then your life is filled with far more possibilities than that of your parent’s generation. It is all too easy to look at basic levels of economic attainment and ignore that we live in a society that although experiencing economic stagnation, has achieved real, though imperfect, advances in the position of many of its formally marginalized members.

Looking from a purely political perspective the advances in gay rights have been spectacular – in the Western World at least. Civil partnership rights and a growing list of states legalizing gay marriage have become the norm across Europe and the developed world. True, many US states have explicitly outlawed gay marriage but the forthcoming US Supreme Court case may overturn those bans. Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin is on the verge of making a historic breakthrough as she leads in opinion polls to be the first openly gay US Senator. Meanwhile in Europe, seemingly unnoticed, a gay man, Elio di Rupo became the new Prime Minister of Belgium in December 2011; while the Icelandic government has been led by a married lesbian, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, since February 2009. The situation for young gay men and women is not perfect but compared to their parents generation where hidden suffering and criminalization was the norm, it is almost a different world.

The importance of bringing more women into politics has been raised as an important symbol of the change necessary to prevent another financial crisis. Sigurðardóttir’s electoral victory was partly driven by the belief that an overtly masculine domination of politics had led to the country’s economic collapse. Over the past three years governments in amongst others – Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Jamaica, Liberia, Lithuania, Malawi, New Zealand, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, Switzerland and Trinidad and Tobago have been or continued to be led by women as Prime Minister or represented as President. Again this is not to say that everything in the world is perfect for women. But to take a brief snapshot from the world of politics the gradual rise of women in positions of political power is no longer referenced by the odd isolated case – such as Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir.

Young women and increasingly young gay people, can look up to their elder counterparts who have forged a path for them toward achieving high political office. As Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently showed, there are still openly hostile attitudes to women and gays in political life. But her memorable evisceration of such views and the popularity of her speech across the world, shows that the female and gay members of this new generation will have more opportunities, in political life at least, than those that went before.