The other day I visited the William Morris museum at Water House in Walthamstow, where I saw plenty of gorgeous wallpapers and textiles. Just as stimulating, however, was the chance to contemplate Morris’s socio-political philosophy and the apparent paradoxes of his life: while his father’s wealth came from investments in the stock market, Morris himself made his living from writing, designing, manufacturing and retailing, all the while advocating and agitating for Marxist socialism. He didn’t succeed in defeating capitalism but he certainly added significant momentum to the cause of a fair and equitable form of society which is, after all, a constant work in progress.
He died, at the age of 62, in 1896 – around the time of the birth of the last known living survivor of the 19th century, news of whom last week prompted stories about the fact that we are living longer. If the current trend is extrapolated, many more people in future can expect to live beyond the age of a hundred and the phrase three score years and ten (surely a euphemism for senescence) will finally become redundant. Life may always be nasty and brutish for many unfortunate humans, but it will no longer be quite as short: in which case we had better get to grips with the quality of it.
Those twenty-somethings who currently find themselves trapped in our dysfunctional capitalist economic system may have seen the glimmer of a benefit to their predicted longevity. While it is a fact that many of them cannot find regular, well-paid employment, decent accommodation or a debt-free future, at least they have more time to sort it out. Why rush to take out a loan to get a degree so that you can search a diminishing job-market for a salary which will enable you to pay back that loan and then take out another loan to buy a gaff? At twenty, you have another 80 years to crack it.
Here’s the thing to do: bide your time. Follow William Morris’s example: live off mum and dad for as long as possible, become politically active and put your efforts into shaping a society that will serve you instead of the other way around. Do not rest until all the international tax havens are put out of business and the border-dodging corporations are made to pay their share of the cost of running society. Don’t forget that all the while robots are making jobs scarcer so your hope of finding one becomes increasingly hopeless. In any case you may never need one: today’s ‘minimum wage’ could soon, if we all push it, become a universal grant – a ‘citizens’ dividend’ – funded by the taxed profits generated by our robotic industries.
There are encouraging signs that youngsters are already making preparations for such a future. An article in the news recently described how, just when you thought it was all over for doorstep deliveries of bottled milk, a revival has been clocked in cities as diverse as East London, Bristol and Sheffield. There is, apparently, a nascent social-conscience-driven backlash against exploitative supermarkets, coinciding with a growing desire for higher-quality food and drink – as also seen in the outbreak of specialist coffee-houses, real ale micro-breweries and artisan bakeries – most of which appear to be the fruits of the labour of young people. Their parents’ generation was responsible for the degradation of foodstuffs: instant coffee, pasteurised beer, industrial bread and the invention of a whole industry called “food manufacturing” – the products of which account for the spread of obesity and diabetes. But the children are starting to take control of their diets. Perhaps today’s young, knowing that they will live longer, have resolved to stay healthier.
And perhaps they will use some of their lengthened lifespan to extend that period of youthful outrage which is a crucial force in the fight for social justice. William Morris would have.