Have the old stolen young people’s futures? Our contributors debate

Is intergenerational inequality (partly) to blame for young people's misfortunes—or have the elderly become a scapegoat? David Willetts and Jennie Bristow go head-to-head

October 07, 2019
Is financial inequality a generational problem—or something else? Photo: Prospect
Is financial inequality a generational problem—or something else? Photo: Prospect

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Yes: David Willetts

There is overwhelming evidence that young people are having a tough time. The wheels of capitalism keep turning so that they enjoy new products and services, but both their incomes and wealth are lagging way behind. The real terms pay of someone aged 30 is no higher than it was for 30 year olds a decade ago. Their real disposable incomes have fallen, not least because of high housing costs. The welfare state exacerbates this, with higher payments for pensioners and cuts in benefits for young people.

There is a similar story for the two main assets we build up during our working lives. Home ownership among young people is half what it was at the turn of the millennium. There has been some progress in extending access to a pension, but the personal pension pots young people are accumulating are going to be worth far less than the defined benefit pensions belonging to the Boomers.

These trends impact quality of life. Young people have less living space than their predecessors did; spend longer commuting; and are more likely to work in atypical jobs, where they tend to be more dissatisfied. All this is before factoring in massive challenges like climate change and Brexit.

Why has this happened? Is it just bad luck? Or is it their fault? These are not the kind of arguments we would expect if we were trying to explain the disadvantages facing women or people from ethnic minorities but they are thrown at young people. There is such a clear pattern across so many different indicators it is implausible that it is just luck. And there is a clear explanation—the big generation of Boomers ahead of them have shaped public policy and markets in ways that work to their own advantage. It is not a deliberate plot by them but it is a clear failure to attach any value to the interests of the younger generation. It is a profound break in the inter-generational contract from which Boomers themselves have gained so much.


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No: Jennie Bristow

We live in difficult economic times—that is true. Young people face stagnant wages, job insecurity and uncertain pension provision; it is a real problem that over a decade on from the global financial crisis, there is little sign of a full recovery. But my question to you is: how does it benefit young people to lay these complex problems at the door of the Baby Boomers?

The intergenerational equity lobby presents economic and political conflicts as conflicts between the generations. This is misguided as a diagnosis, and dangerously divisive as a response. Boomers, like younger Millennials, are not a homogenous group with one single experience—all generations are stratified by social class, gender, ethnicity, geographical location and occupation.

The narrative of “generational inequality” paints over these deep-seated social stratifications, with a false picture presenting all Boomers as the lucky rich and all Millennials as the downtrodden poor. This avoids tackling the causes of our economic and political malaise, and limits the response to mean-spirited “grandma-mugging” strategies that focus on reducing entitlements for older people. Worse, it encourages a sentiment of grievance and fatalism among young people, incited to resent their elders rather than engage in the struggle to shape the future.

All generations have striven to create a better society than their forebears. There is nothing new about the insight that previous policymakers got some things wrong, or that the solutions of the past may become the problems of today. But this is very different from a claim that holds members of an entire generation responsible for the mistakes of history, without understanding the context of their lives then and now. The divisive rhetoric of Boomer-blaming poses a far bigger threat to the inter-generational contract than anything the Boomers have actually done.



You argue that focusing on the economic gap between generations is inflammatory, whereas looking at gaps because of gender or ethnicity is OK. Then you talk about the Crash. But the Crash is a clear example of the importance of which generation you belong to, because it did not affect all age groups equally. Coming into the labour market during a recession can affect earnings over your whole lifetime.

Averages matter. The average pensioner household now has a higher income after housing costs than the average working age household. Pensioners used to be poorer and a lot of policy still rests on that assumption. Should we really continue to exempt working pensioners from paying national insurance?

But averages do smooth out a range of experiences. Getting behind the average, we can look at incomes at the low end of the scale. We find the family at the poorest fifth of family incomes is less well-off than a pensioner household in the poorest fifth for their own age group. You worry that generational analysis is, as Whitehall would say, “unhelpful” because it stokes generational conflict. But Boomers have to accept that decisions we have taken, such as opposing housing development, have terrible consequences for younger people. It was probably more a failure to think through consequences than outright hostility, but we are dumping serious problems on them.

Global warming is certainly not a plot by Boomers. But if we are to hold the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, the young have to produce much less CO2 than Boomers did—another set of costs borne by them.

Showing what is happening to different generations helps move things forward. People respond to the argument that they have an obligation to the young. They believe that each generation should have higher living standards than the last, but recognise this isn’t happening today. That does not lead to a fatalistic sense of grievance—it motivates us actually to do something about it.



Yes, people believe they have an obligation to younger generations—and this surely gives the lie to the idea that the Boomers are monolithically selfish (a “generation of sociopaths,” as one recent book puts it). Studies—including a 2017 survey published by your Foundation’s own Intergenerational Commission—consistently show that older generations want a better life for the young, but do not think that “intergenerational equity” policies are the way to achieve that. Rather, they believe politicians should address the economic and social problems that affect people of all ages, in areas such as jobs and housing. Here, as in many other matters, public opinion shows itself to be wiser than policymakers’ prejudices.

On a range of vitally important issues, Boomer-blaming distorts our understanding of problems and promotes solutions that can only be damaging to the young. Recent reports of a rise in “pensioner poverty” indicate that most pensions are far from gold-plated even now—and down the line, who is going to be most affected by the claim that provision is too generous? Younger workers, whose expectations of their own retirement are being continually whittled down.

Climate change is an issue that affects us all. Yet rather than a sober assessment of the problem, we often hear shrill arguments blaming older people for ruining “the future,” while demanding schoolchildren “take the lead.” Shunting responsibility on to children in this way is a deeply irresponsible thing for adults to do, and promotes resentment and fear in place of practical solutions.

Then there is Brexit, which has divided the entire country. The myth that all older people voted Leave and all younger people voted Remain ignores the divisions within age groups, effectively gaslighting young Leavers. Breezy talk that the votes of older people shouldn’t count equally because they have less long to live with the decision is undemocratic and disturbing. The flattery of young voters does them no favours: they, too, will be “old” before they know it.



Your final point brings out the crucial difference between us. Of course young people will become old and if old people always got special treatment, there would be no unfairness. We could turn attention to other divisions in society. But Boomers are not just enjoying the usual advantages of old age: they are enjoying a one-off offer which will not be available to their kids and grandkids as they grow older.

If current trends hold, today’s 30-year-olds will have to wait almost two decades before they can achieve the home ownership rate that Boomers enjoyed when they were 30. They will never have final salary pension schemes guaranteed by the company. To prevent environmental catastrophe they will have to produce one eighth of the lifetime carbon dioxide that Boomers are producing.

Is it the Boomers’ fault? Maybe we have been lucky and young people unlucky. But this bad luck does look systematic. And a lot of it seems linked to policy. The argument in my book The Pinch is not that Boomers are bad people, but that being a big generation gives them power and, perhaps inadvertently, they have used this power to their advantage.

The generational gap is now feeding through into politics, with Brexit the most vivid example: 73 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Remain and 60 per cent of those aged over 65 voted Leave. The gap between Labour and Conservative support used to be class-based. Now it is age: a fourth of people in their 20s voted Conservative in 2017 and two-thirds voted Labour, whereas 60 per cent of the over-65s voted Conservative and just under 30 per cent voted Labour. You praise the wisdom of public opinion, but trends in opinion reflect a real gap in society.

Of course we should try to bridge the chasm between generations. We have to recognise the pressures young people are under and our responsibility for what’s happened, rather than arguing it away as “bad luck” or trivial compared with other divides in society.



When the Boomers were babies, demographers worried that the size of their cohort would mean hard times when they grew up, as they would fight over jobs and resources. But the post-war economic boom, technological developments and shifts in policy thinking meant when it came to it, size was not a problem. Societies adapt to the shape of their populations and are not determined by numbers.

The idea that the Boomers are uniquely advantaged because they are a large cohort is just as rigid, pessimistic and ridiculous as the presumption that this would be their undoing. I have termed this mindset “doomography”: an outlook based on the certainty that everything is going to get worse, which uses statistics to prove this point. But graphs cannot predict the future, let alone shape it. People do that.

In our turbulent political times, young citizens have as much freedom to take responsibility for their world as their parents and grandparents did; and in many ways, things are more open now than they were back when the Boomers were young. Party-political loyalties have shattered—I am surprised you think we can predict the shape of the “youth vote” given that current MPs can barely remember which party they are supposed to represent. The Millennials are as big a generation as the Boomers, and nothing is stopping them from using their clout at the ballot box. But as the old adage goes, it’s what you do with it that matters.

Nobody should assume young voters will make the “right” decisions, or conform to stereotypes that self-styled generation warriors heap upon them. Whether Baby Boomers or Millennials, people do not engage with the world as a generational category, but as individuals with their own ideas about what life should be like. Stop blaming the kids of the past for the problems of today—and stop feeding the kids of today the lie that their future has already been scripted.

David Willetts is Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation and author of “The Pinch” (Atlantic). An updated edition is published in November

Jennie Bristow is author of “Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer Blaming Won’t Solve Anything” (Yale)