The promotion of ‘generational equity’ is a divisive pursuit

It has become fashionable in policy and media circles to talk about inequality between the generations. We are warned that today’s young people belong to a “jilted generation” (1), or a “stagnation generation” (2), who have been cornered by the economic and political problems of the moment and are unable to buy a house, start a family, or get started on their adult lives.

The blame for this is widely levelled at the Baby Boomers – the relatively large generation born in the aftermath of the Second World War who, in the words of former government minister David Willetts, “took their children’s future” and should “give it back”.(3) Dire warnings about intergenerational conflict around the question of “paying for the future” are issued to bolster changes to policy, in housing, pensions, education and healthcare.

Meanwhile, the result of the EU referendum, in which young people were more likely to vote to Remain in the EU than their elders, has been portrayed as evidence that young and old have polarised visions of the way things should be. Some have argued that the older generations used their disproportionate demographic clout to steal from young people the future that they wanted (4).

But how much truth is there to the claim that young people are suffering from a peculiarly “generational” inequity? There is no doubt in my mind that we, as a society, are currently experiencing some significant economic, social, political and cultural problems, and that policies need to be developed to address these. Yet these are problems that affect all of us, not just the young. In working out what should be done, we first need to move beyond the hyperbole if jilted generations and stolen futures.

Of all the things to have a war about, the most destructive and pointless would be a war between the generations. Generations are brought together, not by political opinion or ideological belief, but simply by being born at around the same time in history. Though this shapes our experience and outlook to some extent – the music we grew up with, the world-changing life events that framed our youth – it hardly defines everything.

Belonging to a generation is not a side to be on – it is simply an accident of birth. And generations do not exist in splendid isolation: they live, work, and love alongside children, pensioners, younger and older adults. To be in the “younger generation” today only means that you will be in the older generation tomorrow – and this time, as we know, goes pretty fast. Presenting social problems in terms of victimised youth and greedy elders is both knee-jerk and short-sighted.

Take, for example, the problem of housing. The over-inflated cost of housing – both to buy and to rent – is both symptomatic of the weakness of the economy, and contributes further to its precarious position. We all know how unstable it is to have an economy reliant on a housing bubble: we are still living with the effects of the 2007 financial crisis. We need more housing, and we need more productive investment in infrastructure and the economy as a whole. Blaming the Baby Boomers as a generation for having houses, or too many houses, or houses that are too big for them, simply evades the problem.

It is also unfair. Sure, some affluent Boomers might have been able to cash in on their property by downsizing – but a large motivation for this is to help their children afford a mortgage (the so-called “Bank of Mum and Dad”). Others will be clinging on to their bricks and mortar, knowing they may need it to fund their retirement – not every Boomer had a final salary pension scheme or, indeed, a high final salary. People put their savings into property when there is no incentive to save, or to invest elsewhere – and they often do this because they want to help their children get ahead. Of course, this reproduces social and economic inequalities: not every Mum and Dad is in a position to act as a bank. But what would policymakers have them do instead?

This is where the call for “generational equity” begins to reveal its shabby agenda. It looks, implicitly or explicitly, like a call for the redistribution of power and resources from old to young. Didn’t like the referendum result? Give votes to 16 year olds! Worried about the plight of the post-Millennials? Encourage people to make their grandchildren the direct beneficiaries of their wills! This is not a sober and sensible discussion about how we, as a society, should pay for the future, and tackle the problems of social inequality that continue to plague us. It is about plundering the past to pay for the present: casting an older generation of workers and tax-payers as the undeserving rich.

We should note that the self-appointed warriors for “generational equity” are not young people, or hard-done-to people, but politicians and policymakers.The issue emerged in the USA in the mid-1980s, marked by the foundation of Americans for Generational Equity (AGE) by a Republican Senator, David Durenberger. In more recent years, it is David Willetts – formerly a Conservative government minister – who has led the British debate. The cry that the old are to blame for the problems of the young has been echoed across the political elite, promoting a shallow and divisive perspective.

It has long been acknowledged that the argument for “generational equity” has been employed to justify unpopular changes. As Alan Walker, Professor of Social Policy and Social Gerontology at the University of Sheffield, argued back in 1996, the concept of generational equity was not a response to intergenerational conflict: rather, it “should be regarded as a socio-political construct”, which provided an “economic-demographic imperative” for restructuring the post-war social contract.(5) In other words – the idea that there are too many older people has become the rationale for cutting back on pensions and tightening our belts, now and in the future. Young people, as much as older people, are told that they should lower their horizons and stop expecting to have houses, pensions, or secure, well-paid jobs.

The problem here is not that policymakers are considering changes to pensions, education, healthcare or housing. Indeed, the welfare state needs radical re-thinking to meet the needs of society in the present day. For example, the incredible developments in life expectancy that we witnessed over the second half of the 20th century should lead us to review the pension age: and this is a really good thing. At a time when people live longer, healthier lives, retirement at 65 seems like a perverse squandering of talent and experience – not to mention a massive expenditure on pensions.

The danger lies in the demographic obsession that underlies this debate, and the ways that it promotes division between old and young. The idea that there are too many older people to support, and not enough younger people to support them, misunderstands fundamentally the character of social and economic life. It is not about sharing the pie this or that way: the size and shape of the pie changes, depending on what we do with it.

The narrative of generational inequity tends to focus on moaning about the “burden” of pensions and seeking to reduce their cost, without considering in a more positive, rounded way the ways in which older people could continue working, and the other valuable social roles that retired people play.

There is a real need to address the priorities of the welfare state and the question of public expenditure, just as there is to debate the need for housing, secure jobs, higher wages, and wider economic issues. And young people understand this. At a debate on this topic at the 2016 Battle of Ideas festival, a number of students and young people talked about how their desire to become independent, to make their own way in the world, is being frustrated by the cost of housing, or the tyranny of student debt (6).

With a couple of exceptions, these young people were not interested in simply moaning about how older generations had had it better – they wanted to discuss solutions for the problems they face today. But they are held back from doing this by the political preoccupation with generational inequity. If society were able to make the best use of the people living and working in it, we would be encouraging young people to seize the initiative and write their own futures.

First published as a reflection on the panel debate ‘Generational Inequality: Who should pay for the future?’ at the 2016 Battle of Ideas festival, sponsored by Thames Water; and by the European Financial Review, 10 May 2017.

1. Howker, Ed. Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. Icon Books Ltd (5 Sept. 2013)
2. Laura Gardiner. 18 June 2016. Stagnation Generation: the case for renewing the intergenerational contract. 
3. Willetts, David. (2011). The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back. Atlantic Books (May 2011).
4. Elgot, Jessica. (2016). Young remain voters came out in force, but were outgunned. The Guardian.
5. Walker, A (1996) (ed) The New Generational Contract, Intergenerational Relations, Old Age and Welfare, London, University College London Press, p.11.
6. Video available here.

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