Since The Brexit vote it seems that way!
Older people, i.e. those aged over 55, voted substantially in favour of leaving the European Union and have been accused of selfishly ignoring the futures of younger generations.
Much of the post-Brexit analysis has focused on how the vote reflected disenchantment with 21st century Britain, not just varying with age, but also class, education and geography. To blame baby boomers is of course simplistic. As a baby boomer who voted to remain in the EU let me try and explain why.
Young people have several grievances with the lot they face. Affordable housing is difficult to find and getting on the housing ladder almost impossible. Many jobs are insecure and part-time, salaries have been driven down and remain low. The current generation of young people is the first to be worse off than their parents, while retired people’s average income now exceeds that of working people.
Young people see the baby boomers as a privileged generation – a generation that has benefited from home ownership and rising house prices, and from lifelong employment with generous pension entitlements that enable older people to enjoy retirement.
This is true to some extent but, like all generalisations, it’s not very subtle. It disguises huge differences within generations as well as between generations.
Not all baby boomers are rolling in it and not all young people are having a hard time; accumulation of wealth across the life course has always been a fact of life; and expectations have changed across generations.
Older people are concerned about the future of their grand and greatgrandchildren, and young people are worried about the care and health of their older relatives.
What tends not to get talked about are some of the things that are taken for granted these days. Now, around half of young people go to university; in the 1960s and 1970s that figure was just 7%. Back then tax rates on income were much higher, and so were interest rates in the 1980s and 1990s for those who had managed to buy their home. Today’s record low interest rates not only make borrowing very cheap but also mean that older people earn very little from their savings.
Many born in the late 1940s and 1950s grew up in the shadow of the Second World War and experienced tough times. They have worked hard for forty plus years.
Today’s young people have global opportunities, technological advantages and much higher expectations. Government policy in the last two decades has successfully ended much pensioner poverty but poverty for children and families has been rising again.
And so it goes on. All in all, simplistic statements about one generation versus another therefore miss many nuances and could lead to false solutions which simply penalise one generation.
So what could be done?
Britain is still one of the richest countries in the world. Yet we live in a society where inequality is growing and the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. Social mobility is in reverse.
There is a danger that looking at inequality from an inter-generational perspective and relying on wealth cascading down the generations, through inheritance or the bank of gran and granddad, will reinforce inequality by concentrating wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer families.
In driving public policy, it must be decided which is most critical: intergenerational inequity or wider inequality across society?
These issues are the focus of much public debate. The House of Commons work and Pensions Select Committee is due to report later this year on its inquiry into inter-generational fairness. And the resolution Foundation has recently set up an inter-generational commission to explore how to repair the social contract between the generations.
What I hope that both initiatives come up with are answers that get the buy-in from all generations.
Our work at United for All Ages has focused on solutions that are sustainable by being mutually beneficial for different generations:
- a new social contract between the generations that includes guarantees on pensions, health and care for the taxpayers of today; this should be underpinned by transparency and a better understanding about the financial pressures facing each generation from pension entitlements to debt;
- a new culture of saving and asset accumulation needs to be encouraged among all families with children and young people; improving the asset wealth of young people from an early age is key to promoting intergenerational fairness;
- a massive house building drive, with some 300,000 affordable homes a year, needs to be complemented by a drive to boost the supply of retirement housing to give older people more options to move and downsize, thereby freeing up more family-sized homes;
- ‘work for people of all ages’ will only succeed if flexible and part-time opportunities are available to older people, in particular those with caring responsibilities as grandparents or carers; employers need to recognise the benefits of older employees, from customer relations and understanding ageing markets to two-way mentoring and skills exchanges with younger staff;
- creating shared spaces for all ages that make better use of community facilities and bring people of different ages together; children’s centres, care homes, retirement villages and other centres could become community hubs, meeting places and service delivery points, that also increase contact and understanding between the generations;
- political engagement is crucial for voters of all ages to be heard; we also need innovative ways, such as a national inter-generational convention where young and older people can together discuss and agree priorities on big issues like welfare reform, housing and climate change;
- Inter-generational fairness has to be underpinned by a fairer system of taxation that redistributes from the wealthiest pensioners to the poorest youngsters; fairer taxation will shift the tax burden from income towards wealth, end anomalies that favour older people, review inheritance tax, pension tax relief and include tough action on tax evasion.
The starting point for fairness must be older and younger people talking together to dispel the myths and stereotypes and increase mutual understanding. That way blaming baby boomers will be replaced by agreement on how Britain can be united not divided.
To find out more about United for All Ages visit www.unitedforallages.com
By Stephen Burke, Director of United For All Ages