The teenage futility of bashing baby boomers
The pseudo-radical vogue for screeching at comfortably off pensioners will not improve the lives of the young. It will only divide society.
It’s a revealing paradox. Normally the liberal-ish and left-ish just love to work themselves up into Thatcher-hating froth at the merest hint of a cut to public spending. But there’s one exception to this right-on rule of thumb. And that’s when the specific cut in question comes at the expense of the elderly. You know the caricature: the varicosed and pampered, endlessly off on foreign holidays, their pockets stuffed full with that most resilient of currencies, the grey pound.
Take the chancellor George Osborne’s announcement, made ahead of this week’s budget, that a flat-rate, single-tier pension of £144 per week is to be implemented. Now for some – the self-employed, married couples, some public-sector workers – this will be an improvement on the basic state pension; but for the millions who enjoyed the benefits of earnings-related add-ons to their pension, it won’t be. Yet is there handwringing about this effective cutback? Not exactly. Here’s the Guardian‘s editorial: ‘The new £144-per-week pension is far lower than the income promised by the 1970s vision (or was it hallucination?) of earnings-related superannuation; indeed, it is lower even than the basic state pension we would have all had if Margaret Thatcher not broken the link with average pay in 1980… the new pension is not by any means “a king’s ransom”. But it does have important merits: it is comprehensible, and also affordable enough to stand some chance of actually coming to pass in the cash-strapped years ahead.’ In other words, while the promise of ‘cash-strapped’ austerity would usually be a red rag to a left-leaning bull, ‘cash-strapped’ austerity for the oldies is just dandy.
Of course, the same thing happened after last year’s budget. Osborne announced that the percentage of income over-65s could enjoy tax free was to be reduced – a change that comes into force next month – and those normally given to rants about evil Tories and their cuts-happy policies happily handed Osborne the fiscal shears. A ‘fair move’, declared one liberal broadsheet.
There just seems to be something in the political air that has made OAP-bashing acceptable. For those wielding the baseball bats, the justification often takes the form of a fear-laden prognosis usually going by the name of the ‘demographic timebomb’ or the ‘great pensions crisis’. The basic fact behind these ideas is that we are living in an ageing society. That is, during the 1940s, there were roughly five working-age people for every pensioner; the ratio now is more like three working-age people for every pensioner. And with this fact comes a whole heap of fears.
These fears were well captured in a House of Lords select committee report, Ready For Ageing?, published to great acclaim earlier this month. There it was asserted that in a society in which people are living longer than ever before, too many are not saving enough for their retirement. Add to this some gloomy statistics about the rising social cost of looking after old people with their litany of chronic health complaints, and the idea of living longer is presented not as a boon but as a burden.
It doesn’t have to be seen this way, of course. Not only are there ever greater numbers of sixtysomethings and seventysomethings continuing to work rather than retire, the very idea that an aging society is a bad thing is, as my grandad would no doubt say, cobblers. Indeed, it is a matter of perception, not fact, whether one sees ever-increasing numbers of grey-haired people living the life of Riley as portent of doom. As Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, puts it: ‘To note that Britain is “rapidly ageing” is another way of saying that things are getting rapidly better. The air is cleaner, the roads are safer, our hospitals (for all their problems) can equip us with new knees or hips to keep us moving and working. The political panic about the “ageing population” is the equivalent of saying: Oh my God, we’re all going to live.’
Unfortunately – and here we approach the motivation behind what spiked editor Brendan O’Neill calls political granny-bashing – such potent dispersals of the gloom surrounding Britain’s demographic trajectory are likely to fall on ears deafened by one of the most degenerate refrains of contemporary political discourse. That is, there is a widely held sentiment, variously dressed, that the current material comfort of the older generations has come at the material discomfort of their younger would-be successors. The old, you see, have gorged themselves on the economic fruits of the postwar and subsequent asset booms, they have consumed more than they should, and now, in their feathered dotage, they expect the young-ish to continue paying for them. In the subtitled words of one influential book on the subject by Lib-Con minister David Willetts, the baby-boomers have ‘stolen’ their children’s future.
This idea has now been turned into something approaching a generational war, a conflict waged by the dispossessed young-ish against their home-owning parents. The youthful battle cry, ‘It’s just not fair!’, is suitably adolescent. ‘Whatever the individual circumstances of particular people’, writes one twentysomething warrior in the Telegraph, ‘on average, those in their sixties are better off than they ever have been. Meanwhile, the young – my generation – are finding it harder than ever imagined.’ Indeed, there is now even a lobby group, the Intergenerational Foundation, which is dedicated to ‘measuring’ in a ‘systematic way, the extent of intergenerational unfairness’. As one New Statesman columnist, sympathetic to the IF, concludes: ‘When the recession hit, the response of the Labour government was to pile the costs on to young people and future generations, while saving those who were deemed to have already contributed from too much hardship.’
Others currently manning the generational barricades prefer pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric to pseudo stats. ‘Through no fault of our own’, writes one young berk, ‘our generation carries a huge burden of social and financial debt. But we have already wasted too much time counting up what we owe. It’s time to start asking instead what the baby-boomer generation owes us, and how we can take it back.’
Behind the radical pretensions of this generational reworking-cum-parody of class war, there lurks an all-too-familiar, all-too-regressive Malthusianism. In this sense, the oldies stand accused of using up more than their fair share of society’s resources, conceived, that is, as a finite entity. Hence, it sometimes sounds as if baby-boomer retirees have taken too much out of some collective trough, have consumed too much of some economic pie. No wonder the solution proposed, and embraced, by the generation jihadis often involves taking wealth off the old, be it a pensions cut, an inheritance tax and so on – it’s all about redistributing the finite entity of wealth.
This ever-more vociferous, decidedly one-sided generational conflict is a dangerous distraction from the real problems of the economy. High levels of unemployment among the young, for example, are not caused by old people working longer and therefore taking up younger people’s jobs. Likewise, the material comforts of many sixtysomethings have not caused the material discomforts of many twentysomethings. The one is not contingent upon the other. The problem is not, in short, some finite amount of wealth, but the stagnation of the economy.
But the problem with viewing our economic problems as a generational fight over a finite social product is not simply that it dodges the real economic issues. It is that it is also socially corrosive. It pitches generations – reified as political identities – against one another to damaging effect. And on what basis? After all, what is it that binds the ‘young’ together as a coherent political identity, aside from the arbitrary facts of chronology? You can be born in the same year as countless people with whom you might have very little in common, politically or indeed socially. Likewise, it is possible to share a vision and interests with someone 30 years your senior. After all, historically, genuine political and social solidarity was not based on immediate differences, such as age; it transcended them.
No, generational conflict is not only a distraction from the real problems of a stagnant economy, it also sets people against one another on the basis of their date of birth. And in doing so, it works against the one thing we need a lot of more right now: social solidarity.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked