Probably the book which has angered, inspired and politicised me most in the last six months is Jilted Generation by Ed Howker & Shiv Malik.
Howker and Malik argue that the baby-boomer generation – those born between 1945 and 1965 – have enjoyed an uniquely privileged set of circumstances growing up – a set of circumstances which contrasts with the shoddy inheritance left to the generation after.
- Housing. As well as the sell off of council housing – a massive windfall for the baby-boomers – baby-boomers only had to borrow (on average) three times their salary to buy their two-up, two-down with a garden. Their debt was also diminished by high inflation rates. Since then the decline in house building, strict planning laws, and population growth have caused house prices to rocket – making baby-boomers rich, and pricing the young out of the market.
- Higher education. Boomers not only got their higher education for free, but once gained, their degrees were highly valued in the job market. Starting wages were comparably high. Today young people face £9000 a year tuition fees, a jobs regime that requires many young people to work for free on ‘internships‘, a lack of apprenticeships, and an economy that leaves one in five young people unemployed.
- Pensions. Boomers joined companies with final-salary schemes. Now most companies don’t have ANY pension provision. The ones left are risky ‘defined contribution’ schemes, paid later and requiring bigger contributions.
- Dismal government finances. We have a national debt of £867 billion, and that’s not including the PFI schemes and public sector pension liabilities that sit off the balance sheet. All the fuss at the moment about reducing the deficit (basically the nation’s overdraft) doesn’t touch the underlying debt.
- And there’s probably half a dozen other things I’ve forgotten
These arguments have been set out elsewhere. David Willetts (now the higher education minister) in Pinch, calculates that with baby-boomers entering the job market later than the generation before (after going to University), whilst retiring in their 60s (earlier than those who will follow), combined with their long life expectancy, means they will take out 118% of what they put in to the welfare state.
What Howker and Malik do which is different
to other treatments I’ve read, is to show how this shoddy inheritance lives alongside a patronising and insulting attitude to young people.
Young people who live at home are called ‘boomerang kids’ or ‘KIPPERS’ – Kids in Parents Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings’.
School exams are constantly criticised as being too easy, Jamie Oliver complains young people are ‘too wet to work’, and Joanna Lumley worries about our ‘slack moral code’. It’s part of attitude that says the young are lazy, Facebook obsessed lay-abouts not interested in working.
Not only is this adding insult to injury, but it affects government policy.
An Englishman’s Home is his Rented Flat
Take one aspect of the problem facing young people today: housing.
To any neutral observer it should be obvious we have a housing crisis.
The average age of buying a first property is now 37 years old. With help from parents, the average age is 33 years. Young people have to borrow six times their average salary to buy a property, and that’s for an ex-council flat.
Howker & Malik point out that the average price of a first-time buyer’s house has gone from £4,975 in 1970 to £165,000 today.
If food prices had risen as quickly, a pint of milk today would cost £2.43, a jar of coffee £20.22, and a chicken £47.50
Renting can be a dismal alternative. Not only are young people putting money into someone else’s pocket by renting, standard terms for a tenant is a 6 month short-term holding whereby the tenant can be evicted or have their rent hiked with six months notice. Moving frequently is fine if you’re single. But by the age of 37, many have young children in school.
Young people can’t afford to buy, so they don’t. In 1990, 51% of home-owners were under 34 years old. Now only 29% are.
Yet government reports argue the booming rental market was fuelled by young people ‘changing careers’ [presumably because they’re so indulgently indecisive] and preferring the ‘flexibility’ of renting.
To deal with this, the government has promised a ‘house building revolution’ and 155,000 built over the next four years.
However, Richard Capie of the Chartered Institute of Housing estimates 290,000 are needed a YEAR.
In the 1950s and 60s, house building was a national priority. When Harold Macmillan became Housing Minister, Churchill told him his success would ‘make or mar’ his career. He succeeded in building 300,000 a year, and went on to become Prime Minister.
The government isn’t serious about increasing the supply of houses, because the fall in house prices would be disastrous for all the boomers who’ve failed to save for their retirement. Who’s lazy and selfish now?
Trust no-one over 45
Where does this leave us?
There are counter-arguments to the ‘generational war’ thesis. Advances in technology mean the next generation have some things better than those before (internet, gadgets and central heating), there are many more opportunities for women, our society is less racist and homophobic than it was before, and today half of youngsters go to university rather than a tiny elite.
In the conclusion, Shiv & Malik end by arguing the real problem is a chronic short-termism in British politics, not a deliberate plot by mum and dad to screw over the generation below them.
This seems sensible, but there is nevertheless a persistent generational bias in government policy. As the Institute of Economic Affairs point out, while the young have been hit by tuition fees, high house prices and cuts to unemployment benefits, pensioners have kept their free bus passes and TV licences, winter-fuel payments (even paid to millionaires), and had their pensions increased. It doesn’t seem surprising that just as the boomers are getting older, there is a sudden concern to make retirement comfortable.
The counter-arguments about central heating and more opportunities for women also miss the point that it is entirely normal for the succeeding generation to have some things better. That’s called progress. Boomers had better lives than their parents. The question is, have they passed on the same kind of generous inheritance they received to those that follow?
Back at University I actually argued for top-up fees on the basis that when half of young people don’t get 5 good GCSES I’d rather put the money into helping those younger, rather than subsidise the education of the most privileged 50% of the population. Needless to say, I’ve changed my mind.
What was so galling about the latest increases in tuition fees was how easy it was for the politicians to forget about students. It’s indicative of a politics built around the special interests of one section of the population, rather than the whole of society.