These granny-bashers really need to grow up
Recent outbursts of anti-pensioner sentiment show just how Malthusian modern thinking has become.
One of the most often-spouted prejudices about old people is that they are miserable sods and misers, forever moaning about what easy lives young people have. Yet when the UK chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, unveiled his ‘granny tax’ last week, it became clear that it is the young and the middle-aged who are the true miserabilists of our times, and that they now hate the old for having easy lives. The paroxysm of granny-bashing unleashed by Osborne’s tax exposed how mean-spirited, even Malthusian, modern political thinking has become.
The response to Osborne’s ‘granny tax’, unveiled in his Budget last week, was fascinating, revealing that even those who are normally Tory-haters will cheer the Tories if they attack the old. Osborne announced that there would be a change in age-related personal allowances – that is, in the amount of people’s income that is tax-free. Traditionally, since Winston Churchill was chancellor in the 1920s, those aged 65 and over have enjoyed a higher personal allowance than under-65s, in recognition of the fact that they had worked hard most of their lives and shouldn’t have to spend their twilight years giving money to the government. Yet now, in a bid to save £1billion by 2015, Osborne plans to rein in the amount of old people’s income that is tax-free.
What was fascinating about the response is that where the tabloids, which are often written off as mouthpieces of Tory propaganda, went mad about Osborne’s proposal, the liberal broadsheets, which pride themselves on being Tory-bashers, welcomed it with open arms. So where tabloids ran with headlines like ‘Osborne picks the pockets of pensioners’, serious papers, staffed by the Smart Set, described the granny tax as a ‘fair move’. The Guardian, which usually sees red over any cut made by a Conservative, said we should ignore the ‘predictable outrage’ over the granny tax and recognise that many old people now have ‘two cars and twice-a-year jaunts to Tuscany or Madeira’. ‘Feel sorry for twentysomethings instead’, the paper implored.
The meanness of these temporary Tory-lovers has been extraordinary. A writer for the Glasgow Herald says he used to admire ‘old folk’ (patronising much?) but ‘many of the current crop of pensioners are a disgrace’. ‘Pensioners, like nurses, are always painted as a virtuous and vulnerable group’, he said, when in truth this generation is ‘historically one of the most affluent ever’. Yeah, how dare modern oldies have nicer lives than earlier generations of oldies, those doddering ‘old folk’ we used to admire because they muddled through despite having no money or teeth? ‘What a fucking liberty!’ as Catherine Tate’s mad-old-woman character might put it.
‘What a fucking liberty!’ – that sums up the outlook of the self-pitying youngish and middle-aged commentators who can’t believe that some old people have cushier lives than us. The Guardian illustrated one of its pro-granny tax reports with a photo of four pensioners on a sunny beach. The caption informed us that ‘the disposable income of people in their sixties is higher than those in their twenties and many pensioners have… regular holidays’. The New Statesman, also normally an Osborne-hater, said the granny tax ‘makes sense’ because ‘older people have been relatively protected from the spending cuts’. ‘The young have taken the brunt of the pain’, said the Statesman, citing as an example ‘the end of the educational maintenance allowance (EMA)’ – the small amount of money paid to some 16- to 18-year-olds for attending school.
The attempt to drum up pity for the young and angst towards the old through reminding us that the government cut EMA shows just how out of touch these commentators are. There is no comparison between a 17-year-old being given £30 a week for doing something he should be doing anyway – attending school – and the tax perks traditionally enjoyed by the elderly. The latter are a kind of recognition of a life’s work, a thank-you for the fact that these people have been contributing to society for 40 or 50 years, whether through work or voluntary service or child-raising or a mix of all three. In contrast, what has the average 17-year-old ever done for society, except maybe show it his underwear as he ghetto-limps to school? That EMA can be talked about in the same breath as pensioner perks shows how warped the welfare debate has become, where society is implored to mollycoddle youth who have never worked and withdraw perks from old people who have.
Granny-bashing has now become the favoured sport of the Smart Set. One commentator laid into the ‘lunatic fringe’ of those ‘well coordinated pressure groups’ – such as, er, Age UK and Saga – who always ‘plead hardship on behalf of the old’. A writer for the Telegraph said Osborne was right to attack ‘the most cosseted, untouchable, powerful generation in our history’. The Financial Times said the granny tax ‘did not go far enough’; apparently ‘pensioners have had an easy recession’.
What’s behind all this ugly moaning about pensioners? It is of course true that many old people (though certainly not all) have fairly nice lives, certainly in comparison with earlier generations of pensioners. And thank God! Who wants to go back to a time when the majority of old people, especially the working-class ones, scraped by on the state pension alone and could barely afford to heat their homes never mind have ‘regular holidays’? The relative comfort many old people now enjoy is testament to both economic and medical advancement, where we have created a society that allows us to live longer and more comfortably than at any other time in history. Only a properly long-faced miserabilist would begrudge the pensioners their perks.
What is really motoring the granny-bashing is the perception that all this life-improvement for the old has come at the expense of the living standards of the young. Many seem to believe that the reason some younger and middle-aged people are struggling – whether it’s to find work or buy a house – is because the selfish oldies have used up all of society’s resources. So we constantly hear of a ‘generational conflict’ between the hard-up young and the well-off old, with even the Financial Times informing us that ‘Britain is no country for young men’. Apparently those born in 1985 are the first generation in 100 years ‘not to be experiencing better living standards that those born 10 years previously’. Why? Primarily because our parents ‘failed to leave the world in better shape for their offspring’, says the FT. Or as a New Statesman columnist put it, the young have been ‘screwed over’ by ‘an age group that is richer, freer and more powerful than any generation this country has seen’ – the modern-day old.
Leaving aside how enormously embarrassing it is for commentators in their 20s, 30s and 40s still to be moaning about their parents… the most striking thing about today’s granny-hatred is just how Malthusian it is, how much it is underpinned by bogus ideas of scarcity, with commentators fantasising that we must all eat from the same tiny trough of ‘stuff’. One of the most depressing features of our age is the idea that everyone’s lifestyle is contingent on someone else’s. So people talk about rich bankers and not-so-rich nurses in the same breath, as if the reason some nurses are poorly rewarded for their work is because bankers are highly rewarded for theirs. And similarly, commentators who feel desperately sorry for themselves sneer at the two cars, twice-yearly holidays and plasma TVs of the older generation, as if those things created tough times for the young, as if the comforts of the old are directly responsible for the hardship (some real, much imagined) of younger generations.
This is classic Malthusianism, the idea that there is a fixed amount of resources, which, sadly, the old have managed to get their wrinkly hands on. Such an outlook seriously distracts attention from the real problem we face today: the failure of society to pursue proper economic growth, to create more resources with an eye for boosting the living standards of all. Granny-bashing replaces serious debate about economic growth with spiteful moaning at those who have done relatively nicely; it isn’t a serious political position, just glorified self-pity. The Malthusianism of it all can be glimpsed in one think-tank’s suggestion that, because Britain is not building any more houses, pensioners should ‘downsize and free up much much-needed housing to young families’. The social problem of a lack of infrastructural ambition gets repackaged as a problem of pensioner greed, with oldies accused of acting as ‘bed blockers’.
It is always dangerous to depict social failings – in this case the failure to grow the real economy – as products of certain people’s greed. That only generates hostility towards certain sections of society rather than any positive debate about how to improve society. (Indeed, is it any wonder that care homes treat the elderly badly, as was recently revealed, when this generation is now so publicly reviled?) It is a worrying sign of the times that people no longer see themselves as belonging to a social class but rather to a generation, an age group, which must necessarily pit itself against other age groups. It is time these people grew up, ditched their ‘I blame the parents’ routine, and thought seriously about how we can ensure that everyone has two holidays, two cars and a big house.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.