Arguing the toss, spiked style

Ooh, that’s interesting. They’re putting the baby boomers on trial.

What, all of them?

Well, none of them actually. It’s an event at the London School of Economics later this month, a mock trial in which the indictment is that the postwar generation has wrecked the world for younger people.

God, why are they bothering with that?

I know. It’s pretty bloody obvious the boomers are guilty as charged.

Of ‘wrecking the world’?

Yes. Look, the planet is a mess. What with climate change and other environmental problems caused by pollution, there’s a huge loss of biodiversity, and we’re running out of resources. And at home, there are no jobs for young people, they can’t afford to buy a home even if they do get a job, and the pensions system will be bankrupted by sick, greedy old people who have voted enormous pensions for themselves without providing the means to pay for them.

So, just to summarise: you’re saying that younger people live in a world that is far worse for them than it was for the young people in the Fifties and Sixties?


Hmmm… well, let’s just take a look at those propositions, shall we? First, the environment. Air quality has vastly improved in our big cities. In the early Fifties, it was normal for levels of particulates in the air in London to be 10 times what they are now, thanks to the burning of coal. During the Great Smog of 1952, London had a sooty fog 100 times current levels - and as many as 12,000 people died as a result. Buildings in every big city were just black with soot and have only been cleaned up in recent years now the air has improved.

Well, that’s just one aspect of the environment.

But a pretty damn important one on a day-to-day level. And take a look at life expectancy. For a man born in 1950, it was 67.2 years. For someone born in 1990, it is 72.3 years. We are generally much healthier than in the past.

Or how about travel? In the Fifties and Sixties, foreign travel was just taking off, as it were. Now it is pretty routine for students to spend a few weeks travelling around Europe or even months travelling round the world. In fact, on almost every material measure, from health to education to telecommunications, things have got considerably better.

Really, these are trivialities. The fact is that the important things are the future of the planet, getting a job, and having a place to live.

Okay, then. First, climate change up till now has been modest. Temperatures are about half a degree warmer than when the boomers were born. Nor will they get very much hotter during the lives of twentysomethings around today. For relatively cool countries like the UK, a bit of warming will be, on balance, a good thing.

What? After all the floods?

If we did end up with warmer, wetter winters, it would be a lot better all round than bouts of economy-freezing, hypothermia-inducing snow. But I wouldn’t take the current floods as a definite guide to anything, other than a reminder of the need to build the infrastructure to make our towns and cities more resilient.

And housing?

There is a problem with housing. In fact, it’s one of the few things that should be regarded as an emergency, but is never treated as such. But it’s not a case of boomers versus young people - it’s working-class city dwellers versus those who live in the green belt who oppose new housebuilding, combined with a housing bubble driven by illogical government policies. But even then, with smaller families, people probably have more space and comfort than ever in the past. Many of the boomers still had to put up with back-to-back housing, outside toilets and freezing homes when they were growing up. Now we expect central heating, good lighting and all the other creature comforts.

Bear in mind that as the cost of housing has risen, the cost of just about everything else has gone down, in real terms.

Well housing is unaffordable - even if you could get a job. Young people are now impoverished.

The average household income in the UK has gone up 2.5 times in real terms since 1970. Yes, it’s been tough for a long time to get on to the jobs market, especially if you have few skills. And so-called graduate jobs have not expanded nearly as fast as higher education. But young people spend far more time in education than in the past, which is a nice luxury to have. The school-leaving age only increased to 16 in 1972. Now nearly half of young people go on to higher education, once the preserve of a lucky few. And once people do get into work, in the long run they tend to be much better off than in the past.

Compare that to the many people who left school at 15 in the past, then spent 40 or 50 years in the same unfulfilling job before retiring just before they died. How can you say they had it so good?

Because the old now have bought-and-paid-for homes, the values of which are being bumped up by the housing bubble, and amazing pensions that we are forking out for!

The state pension remains a miserable income. But yes, the old are paid for by the young. That’s the way the system was set up, for better or for worse. For that arrangement, you can blame the boomers’ parents, not the boomers. But the real problem here is the moribund state of society, not the avarice of the old. When the economy is booming, there are plenty of jobs, and young people can see how their lives could get progressively better as time goes on. When the economy is stuck in a rut, with little productive investment, a blame game kicks off about how to divide up society’s wealth.

In that respect, the bitching about the boomers represents a dangerous decadence. And the solutions on offer - about reining in production and consumption - would leave everybody worse off. Indeed, the complaints about the older generation seem to be contradictory. One group complains about pricey housing - caused by a lack of development. Another group complains about environmental damage - caused by ‘too much’ development. That suggests that this attempt to drum up intergenerational conflict hasn’t got a lot to do with real problems at all. Rather, it’s about a society bereft of both a forward dynamic or a sense of purpose.

Rob Lyons is associate editor at spiked.


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