I asked Robert Peston about Trump, Corbyn and if our generation is screwed

‘Very troubling’

There is a persuasive narrative that our generation is fucked.

To recap: we graduate and ricochet between low-paid, temporary roles. We rent small, imperfect homes in London, a city whose long-term objective is apparently to wind us so tight that we snap and move to another city (which in time will ape London’s methods). No one has any money. We marry later; we are always anxious.

Oh, and it’s all their fault – the selfish baby boomers who spent all our money and then sent the economy careering towards the crash. Thanks, guys.

So I asked one of them what level of fucked we are. Robert Peston is the former BBC economics editor who moved to ITV News in January to be the network’s politics editor and front his own show, Peston on Sunday, which will launch in the spring. He is the most famous journalist in the country, and the guy who patiently explained the British economy to us for almost a decade on the BBC, notably single-handedly heralding the first tremors of the banking crisis by breaking the news that Northern Rock was in crisis in 2007. 

Back then versus right now

He graduated from Oxford in 1982. “There were fewer university places back then,” he says. “Basically if you went to uni you were broadly guaranteed a job, and you were guaranteed a very different kind of job than today. People were joining organisations and thinking that they might well stay there forever…places like the BBC, BP, the Foreign Office, the Treasury.” So, quite good places then.

On a BBC panel covering the Budget, March 2015

“Those organisations gave them pensions, and house prices were relatively low,” he continues. He admits that he bought his first home in Borough (on the Thames, where an average flat last year sold for £506,337) a few years after graduating. “I think I paid £25,000 for it, and I had a tiny salary”. He sounds guilty.

He acknowledges, of course, that it’s not like that any more. “It’s incredibly difficult for anybody leaving school or university to get employment that feels stable and secure. So many young people I know are freelancing, going from job to job. At the bottom end of the scale, if you’ve got little in the way of skills you’re in a very dire state, these awful zero-hours contracts where you don’t even know from one day to the next if they’re going to call you into work.

“Obviously in London and the southeast the problem of too little affordable property is most acute, but actually if you’re young it’s incredibly difficult to get a home [anywhere in the country]. I remember thinking at the age of 18 [that] I wanted to get out and make my way in the world. Now so many young people think it’s sort of normal to stay with their parents till they’re 30.”

Is there a bright side?

At this point, it’s sort of hard to see the point in going on. He rallies. “I suppose the positives would be – and they are positives – that this generation of young people is more imaginative about how they’re going to work, much more entrepreneurial. Lots of young people want to create their own businesses. Lots of young people – not all of them but quite a lot of them – like the relative freedom of not having to work for a big employer.”

Talking of being imaginative, this weekend the Sunday Times’s veteran interviewer Lynn Barber accused him of being  “overconfident” for throwing his hat into the ring for the Guardian editorship. “I take a different view – I don’t think that’s overconfidence, I just think I don’t have a problem with trying and failing,” he says. “We want to encourage our kids to have a go – if you don’t succeed you just pick yourself up and try again. I thought it was slightly odd that she [would] have a go at [that].”

Peston reporting from the World Economic Forum in Davos for ITV News last month

The EU

He can’t tell me what he really thinks about the EU referendum, because of British TV’s strict impartiality rules. He also suggests that this is not his role as a journalist (“I’m not a propagandist – I’m someone who tries to describe what’s going on in the hope that people have the info they need to make their own decisions”). But he describes it as “the most important vote that any of us are likely to have in our lifetimes”. He adds: “It would be an absolute scandal if it were a low turnout.”

He’s talking about us. “Most younger people feel much more comfortable about the idea that they’re Europeans, and international, but one of the things that we saw at the last general election is that it’s quite hard to get young people to vote.”

Disengagement with the establishment

The problem of disengagement more broadly is “established politicians”, he says, as we talk about the Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon and other recent disturbances to political normality. “People think that the established politicians are all about spin. So they’re going on this hunt for the so-called genuine. I think that many of these so-called genuine politicians are as much in a sense self-created media phenomena. But somehow they persuaded people that they are more honest than the last lot.”

He suggests various politicians who are part of this hunger for ‘authenticity’: a motley crew including Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National in France, Nigel Farage and UKIP, Sturgeon and the SNP, and Sanders and Trump in the States. “They all represent voters saying that traditional parties and politicians have in some sense failed them. Lied to them.”

He finds Trump “profoundly troubling”. “Most people think that if it came down to a straight fight between Trump and Clinton, Clinton would win,” he observes. “But most people did not think that Trump would do as well as he’s done. I don’t think one can be confident.” 

Young people need to vote

We talk about our generation, again. “The thing that is really important for young people to think about is that when they don’t vote, they get governments or decisions that suit a different generation. Is it any surprise that if you look at what’s happened to incomes over the last decade,  more relevantly since the great crash of 2008, the incomes of those over 60 are quite a lot higher than they were at the time of the crash. Incomes of younger people are a lot lower than they were at the time of the crash.

“One of the explanations is that old people voted and they voted for the people who they knew would represent their interests. So it is really important that young people start to recognise that one of the ways of improving their own prospects is to get politicians and governments that represent them.”