Generation game: Sheila Hancock and Alice Garnett, Prospect’s Long life and Young life columnists. Image: Paul Black

The age-old question: which generation has had it harder?

Gen Z, millenials, boomers or the silent generation? We invited two of Prospect’s Lives columnists to discuss housing, climate change, mental health—and whether there’s anything one generation can learn from the other

Alan Rusbridger, editor: We’re going to start by talking about housing and the economy. Alice, how do you feel about the enormous inequality between the old and young?

Alice Garnett: It makes me cross. As soon as you mentioned housing, my heart rate increased. The rage is coursing through me. I’m not a millennial and I’m not yet at the stage where I’d be thinking about buying a house or starting a family, so my anger is less about homeownership and more about the rental crisis. I pay £1,200 in rent every month. That’s over half of what I earn and I earn a pretty good salary for a recent graduate. So, for anyone who wants to work as a creative, I think that level of rent would just be impossible to manage. I wouldn’t be able to pay rent if I were to commit to being a creative. And I think being able to rent a home and do a creative job would have been possible a couple of decades ago. My mum talks wistfully about rent controls and things like that, and that kind of gets my back up because I’m like, “We don’t have rent controls.”

Alan: When you feel angry about it, who do you blame? Whose fault do you think it is?

Alice: I’m not a vindictive person but I mostly blame the government. I also blame the older generations for voting for things like Brexit, which I didn’t get a say in. I was 16 at the time. Brexit is behind a lot of the economic fallout that we’re experiencing now. I don’t blame any specific older person, but I do blame “baby boomers” as a conceptual group. 

Sheila Hancock: Well, I’m appalled that you must pay such high rents, but I don’t understand this obsession with wanting to own a house. Homeownership has become a sort of propaganda, there’s an idea that you fail if you don’t own a house. It never was an ambition of mine to begin with. I mean eventually I bought a house for £3,000 and did it all up, but I mean…

Alice: £3,000!

Sheila: Exactly.

Sheila: I sold it for £80,000 and now it’s worth a million, the same house. So it’s ludicrous what’s happened. But in my day, if you were from my background, you were jolly pleased if you got on a council estate, whereas now living on a council estate is frowned upon. But in fact, they were beautifully kept. As long as you paid your rent the hedges were cut, and everything was nice, and the neighbours were nice. But now we’ve got this obsession with owning our own homes.

The pressure for homeownership rolls down to mean that rents are exorbitant. But I think you should have the choice of saying, “No, I don’t want to own a house. I don’t want the worry of mending the roof. I’d rather the landlord did it, thank you.” 

Alan: Alice, I’m younger than Sheila, but nevertheless I bought a house, when I was 30, for £60,000. How does that make you feel?

Sarah Collins, assistant editor: In London?

Alan: A four-bedroom house. Which I guess would be worth almost a million pounds now.

Alice: Yeah, I was going to say the rent that my flatmates and I pay to our landlord is probably about £45,000 or £50,000 a year or something like that. A year! And that’s just for rent.

Alan: But do you think that people of our generation should be taxed? Do we owe you something back because our housing wealth was unearned? We were just lucky to be alive at the time we were.

Alice: Yeah, 100 per cent. I think that—

Alan: Well, maybe not 100 per cent.

Sarah: Yes, Alan, 100 per cent. 

Alice: I think millennials are the generation who can’t afford to buy, while gen Z is the generation who can’t afford to rent

Sheila: I didn’t have a cushy time when I was young. I mean you’re making it sound as though one could go around buying houses. I worked damned hard and didn’t have much money. I mean, I’m an actor, so obviously I didn’t earn and I was constantly terrified. I had to go and get on the dole and I wouldn’t say I had a prosperous, wonderful time. But the most important thing was that one’s education was paid for up to a certain age. 

Alan: But nevertheless, the fact that your house hugely appreciated in value…

Sheila: Yes, I got that step on the ladder.

Alan: You and I were both beneficiaries of that.

Alice: I honestly think gen Z is past the point of worrying about buying somewhere. I think millennials are the generation who can’t afford to buy, and what is more concerning is that gen Z is the generation who can’t afford to rent. I’m essentially paying my landlord’s mortgage for him, for his second home, and for what? For a rodent-infested place in southeast London where we regularly get followed home by men on the street. It’s not even a safe area to live in really. And we’re still paying through the nose. 

Alan: Let’s go back to tax. So, you’re not going to tax us 100 per cent…

Alice: No.

Alan: What kind of penalty do you think we should pay for having had the good fortune of seeing these houses hugely grow in value under our feet while we didn’t do much…

Sheila: I think taxes should go up, and I don’t think it’s a penalty. I would regard it as my duty

Alice: Well, I would begin by taxing people who own multiple properties. I don’t really mind the people who have one property which happens to have gone up loads in value. That’s kind of fine with me. That’s their business. But for people who own multiple properties, particularly if they own vacant properties in London when we’ve got people homeless on the street and young people who can’t afford to live in the city full stop, there should be huge tax hikes for people like that. That’s ridiculous.

Sheila: I just think taxes should go up, and I don’t think it’s a penalty. I mean I wouldn’t regard it as a penalty. I would regard it as my duty. I’m very happy to pay tax, and never do any tax avoidance things. I pay my taxes. I think a lot of people wouldn’t be eligible for tax anyway if we had a more progressive taxation system. And this craze, again, it’s rather like buying houses—governments say we’re going to reduce taxes. And the public have got used to judging governments by the fact that they reduce taxes. Somebody should say, “No, if you want a national health system and don’t want to have to go to private doctors or if you want our schools not to be falling down round your ears, you have to pay.”

Alice: I’m not going to argue with that. I think we should, absolutely. I’m all for taxing the rich, particularly the super-rich.

Alan: How much of this is about intergenerational fairness and how much about class? 

Sheila: I think it’s a lot to do with class. Everything in this country has to do with class. 

Alan: Because the only people who can afford to buy at the moment are relying on the bank of mum and dad.

Sarah: Sheila, as a working-class person, throughout your life you’ve built your own wealth, you’ve built your own career, you’ve been a huge success. And now people like Alice and me—gen Z and millennials—are saying that this problem is all about generations, not about class. This is about old versus young. Do you think that’s fair? Do you think that’s the right framing?

Sheila: No, I don’t think it’s an age thing. I think it’s bad government. I think there are so many things that have been handled wrongly and it affects everybody, young and old. I mean the shortage in social care—there’s a load of things that are disastrous and people are living dreadful lives. 

Alice: Yeah. And I think what concerns me most—this is quite bleak as a statement—is I can’t envision how my generation is to grow old in this world. In a world where the NHS is crumbling. Where we don’t really have access to housing. With the climate in a state of catastrophe. Where there are concerns about technology and social media and AI taking our jobs—all of these things. The news is just catastrophic, and I often cannot think about the future because I don’t know what will be available to us. I really don’t.

And I think that working-class young people will absolutely bear more of a burden compared with their middle- or upper-class counterparts. The other thing that’s interesting to think about on the solidarity point are the recent studies that have shown gen Z men are actually more likely to be right wing than boomer men. So actually what we’ve got for the first time is a generation where there’s a gender split in politics. Previously, boomer men and boomer women would generally vote in the same way, but we don’t have that with gen Z anymore. And I think that it’s becoming more and more fractious and there’s going to be less and less solidarity based on class, gender, all of these different kinds of identities. And I think that’s another reason why I’m just really not sure where we’re heading.

Alice Garnett, a young woman with long blonde hair and a pink top, sits on a sofa talking to Sheila Hancock, an older woman with short white hair and a blue shirt Born 68 years apart, Alice and Sheila share many concerns about world ahead. Image: Paul Black

Alan: I’m going to move us on to mental health. I’m going to start with you, Sheila. So I’ve read about your early life and it wasn’t an easy life. You had it quite tough. So when you look at the younger generation… do you think they’re snowflakes?

Sheila: No, not at all. I mean, I think Covid has been a disaster for young people. I mean, I see it with my grandchildren. I really worry about them, that they haven’t learned about friendship, they’ve had terrible gaps in their learning. And they’re having to adapt to a whole new life.

Alan: I’m going to provoke you. Alice’s generation, they have to be given a trigger warning before they can read a Shakespeare play. What do you make of that? 

Sheila: Yeah, well that’s ludicrous. That’s just bloody ludicrous. If that’s being a snowflake, then yes. I think the whole thing about being careful what you say is quite dangerous. I do find that tiresome.

Alan: So they are snowflakes?

Sheila: Yes, but they’re tough in some ways. I suppose when I hear young people saying, “It’s never been so bad” I think, “It has been as bad.”

Alan: Well, you grew up in the war. And that was worse than today. 

Sheila: Yeah. But even before the war, for working-class people, it’s always been tough. Working in a mill wasn’t fun. Working down a coal mine wasn’t fun and the money wasn’t great. One thing we did have, though, was community. And I do worry about the collapse of community now that that kind of work is over. How do people still get together? And that’s why I care so much about my own profession, because it is a means of people meeting and getting together and doing things together. But instead of being so frightened and upset and angry, why can’t young people think, “Yes this is great, we can change things. We actually can stand up to these stupid bastards that made such a mess. We can vote for the right people. We can learn about politics.” What I loathe about the snowflakey lot is they’re so ignorant. I wish that they were more committed. I think there are youngsters who are committed to the environment or Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, but I don’t see a desire to change the world. When I was young, we did want to change the world, like mad.

Alan: Alice do you think there’s anything in the critique that your generation is a bit snowflakey? Or do you think that’s completely unfair?

Alice: I would agree that my generation does have some snowflakey tendencies. I am, myself, not a fan of cancel culture because I think it’s unproductive. And because I also believe that people should be allowed to change. And if we just cancel people, then they don’t get the opportunity to do that. How are we going to change the world if we don’t allow people to change? I think what Sheila’s saying about the sort of fatalistic view that my generation has is accurate. But I think it’s just because it all feels so impossible. And I think so much of our attention and our energy is consumed by work, by “hustle culture”, by the struggle to pay rent. 

Alan: Let me press you on this. All the statistics are that mental health problems with young people are soaring, off the scale compared even with 20 or 30 years ago. But when you look at the lives that people of Sheila’s generation had, they had real hardship and yet they didn’t seem to have the same high rates of mental health problems. 

Sheila: I just loathe this thing of giving children diagnoses. My grandchildren have been particularly naughty. They’ve got the Hancock thing. And they’re always being diagnosed as having ADHD or XYZ, when they just need a metaphorical smack on the bum. They’re just behaving like children. And it’s like, you get depressed, an affair breaks up, you’re suicidal. That’s life. That’s not an illness. I mean, obviously there are people with mental illnesses, I’m not denying that. And indeed we deal with mental illness terribly badly because in prisons we have people who are so ill and nobody’s doing anything about it. But I do think you kids sometimes think you are ill when you are not. It’s just life. Life’s bloody difficult.

Alice: I think telling the difference is really, really hard. I definitely internalised that view when I was a teenager and all my friends were getting diagnosed with anxiety disorders and this, that and the other. I myself was struggling with some quite difficult stuff, but I would dismiss it because I was taking that view of, “Oh, I’m not anxious, I don’t have a mental illness, this is just life.” And I internalised it and I internalised it and I internalised it until I got very sick.

Alan: I think in Sheila’s generation there would’ve been a stiff upper lip. She had to put up with bombs falling on London. A bit of stiff upper lip wouldn’t go amiss. Do you think there’s something in that, Alice?

Alice: Personally, no, because I’ve done that. I’ve taken that approach to myself quite a lot. Maybe I feel like, I’m one individual out of a vastly diverse generation, but whenever I’ve told myself: “Oh Alice, just grow up, it’s not that bad,” it’s just blown back in my face. And when I’ve tried to “not deep” things like being assaulted, my suffering just came back to bite me in the form of depression, losing weight because I couldn’t eat and dissociating and having panic attacks.

Sheila: Well, I wouldn’t use the phrase stiff upper lip anyway. I would say “gritting your teeth” and “getting on with it” are more the thing. Stiff upper lip sounds phoney, like you’re having to pretend you’re okay. But there are occasions when something happens—like being abused in the way that you obviously have been—that, having talked it through with people at some point, do you not have to eventually grit your teeth and just get on with life?

Sarah: Can I come in here? As a millennial I am obviously not supposed to be representing gen Z in this, but I write Prospect’s Mindful life column, and I have a very specific view on the issue of mental health and generations, because my family has been mentally ill for generations going back and back and back and back. 

Mentally ill people have always existed, but in the past they were treated terribly. They were kept hidden from view. So I think it’s easy now for the older generations to say, “You lot are so mentally ill and you have no stiff upper lip and you’re always giving yourselves diagnoses.” Well, what was the alternative in the past? It was a higher suicide rate and it was the hiding of mentally ill people from the view of society. So I don’t even accept the premise that we are necessarily more mentally ill. Maybe there’s just less stigma about acknowledging it.

Sheila: I take your point. I mean, obviously if, I’m all for drugs, I really am. But then I remember some research done, I believe it was regarding a terrible rail crash where many people died. And some of the survivors were given a session of counselling or psychological debriefing. However, more recently studies have shown that this kind of psychological debriefing doesn’t improve survivors’ mental health outcomes, it doesn’t prevent PTSD and for some people it can even exacerbate their distress. Because having something terrible happen to you isn’t the same as being ill—do you know what I mean? That is experiencing something awful and dealing with it. I mean, I just constantly have to remind people that life is not easy.

Alice: Or fair.

Sheila: Or fair.

Alan: Let’s move on to social media. Alice, is social media a force for good or bad?

Alice: Bad. I say that as someone who was on Instagram from the age of 13, which I guess by today’s standards isn’t even that sort of young as I’m an elder gen Z, being born in 1999. And yeah, I just remember being online and there was so much grooming… As 14-year-olds, my friends and I would chat to random men on Kik. Thankfully for today’s youth, there’s a bit more policing of those kinds of webchat platforms…

Sheila: Not enough.

Alice: …Whereas, when I was young, there was none. There was all kinds of horrific stuff on the internet that would’ve fuelled people’s eating disorders or self-harm habits or other kind of harmful behaviours. And now, while I use it a lot to share my work and to build a personal brand, I still think the internet is a force for evil because it kind of obliges you, if you want to be a creative, to spend your time cultivating an online persona. You can’t just write, you can’t just make art. You’ve got to “be” a writer. You’ve got to exhibit this personal brand. You have no choice—you’ve got to be online. You must be an influencer before you can be a creative. It’s all about clout.

Sheila: I think what I’ve hated about social media is that it’s opened the door to horrors, underworlds that I didn’t know existed.

Alan: Such as?

Sheila: Well, this male hatred-of-women thing that my grandchildren tell me about. This man, whatever he’s called…

Alice: Andrew Tate?

Sheila: Yeah. And ugly pornography being shown to my seven-year-old grandchild… That kind of dirty underworld I’ve felt soiled by, although I don’t look at it very much, but I just know my grandchildren are looking at it and I don’t want their little minds to be polluted by it.

Alice: I think that’s maybe the primary issue with my generation. We were exposed to so many horrible things and so much awful news from an early age, we’re just desensitised.

Sheila: I think you are right.

Alice: It’s just so overwhelming. And I am guilty of looking at the news with apathy, even though what is happening is absolutely horrendous. Because the alternative is to feel so angry all of the time.

Sarah: Let’s move on to the workplace. Sheila, a fellow actor, Jodie Foster, recently caused controversy by saying that gen Z were annoying to work with—mainly because they haven’t got a very good work ethic. Do you think young people have less of a work ethic today than you had at their age?

Sheila: Yes, I do. I mean, you order a taxi and they arrive half an hour late and say, “I am sorry the traffic was bad.” Of course the bloody traffic was bad, you’re living in London! You allow an extra half-hour. I think people are late in a way that I wouldn’t have dared to be. I’d rather arrive half an hour early. Today I was sitting outside here for half an hour rather than be late. Alice, you arrived late.

Alice: Although I was arriving late because I was scared to leave my other workplace. I didn’t want to seem like a workshy gen Z because that’s how we’re stereotyped!

Sheila: Instead of which you’d arrive late here!

Alice: I did. It is hard having two jobs. What’s a girl to do?

Alan: Do you accept, Alice, that in general your generation is a bit workshy compared to our generation?

Alice: No, because I don’t think it’s that we’re workshy, I think it’s that we’re switched-on all the time. Back in the day—I mean, I don’t know firsthand, I wasn’t around—but I assume you’d go to the office, go for martinis at lunchtime and then go home and have dinner. And your work was in the office and that was it. Whereas now, I could have Slack notifications waiting for me on my phone right now. So, I’ll be on my way home, and I’ll be looking at emails. You don’t switch off.

Alan: But I thought employers were getting used to the snowflakes and saying, “The poor darlings don’t want their Slack notifications so we’re going to switch them off at six o’clock now.”

Alice: That hasn’t happened in my experience. 

Sheila: I think that’s true, actually. One of my in-laws, she’s in PR and she’s constantly, constantly working all the hours that God sends. I take it back—I don’t think gen Z are workshy. Just, punctuality drives me mad. 

Sheila: Brexit is the biggest crime as far as I’m concerned. And I admit that Brexit is the fault of the older generation

Alan: Let’s talk about activism and climate change. Alice, when you look at the fucked up state of the world, do you blame us? Do you blame Sheila?

Alice: Sheila specifically, yeah. I’m joking. I do blame boomers for Brexit. And I blame them for their devotion to work and to capitalism and to buying houses and the nuclear family and the American Dream. That’s what’s landed us in late-stage capitalism, which is ultimately why the planet is fucked. And a lot of the reason why I think my generation is workshy is because what the fuck are we working towards, if there’s not going to be a planet for us to live on? 

Sheila: I think it was a generation younger than mine that did all the harm. I think our generation after the war did pretty well with the NHS and free education. I think it’s the generation afterwards, in the 1960s, when we went crazy and all the values changed. I just want our values to be good. We’ve got politicians who lie—lying has become acceptable now. And Brexit is the biggest crime as far as I’m concerned. I admit that Brexit is the fault of the older generation. Your only comfort, darling, is that we’re dying out, so there will be another vote.

Alan: What about the damage to the planet that your generation has done, Sheila?

Sheila: Oh, dreadful.

Alan: And do you accept responsibility?

Sheila: Yes, I do. Because I didn’t know. It was ignorance really. I didn’t know about climate change. I do now, I try not to fly, and I’ve got solar panels. But it’s so easy to think, “Oh well, that little bit, that one little flight to Paris won’t make any difference.” I’m outraged that already Starmer has weaseled out of his green commitments. That’s shameful. Why does he not realise that there’s a younger generation that would’ve voted Labour for the green policies alone?

Alice: I think one thing that my generation could learn from older generations is how to work together to make change happen

Alan: Alice, are young people like you too fatalistic? Rather than being weary, couldn’t you try and change the world?

Alice: I think one thing that my generation could learn from older generations is how to work together to make change happen. I think that because there are so many issues pressing in on us from so many angles and through our screens all the time, there is a constant state of being overwhelmed, which does result in fatalism and nihilism. And I think we could learn from older generations about how to come together to take action. 

Sheila: After the war, we had Aneurin Bevan—we had all sorts of leaders with vision, determination and knowledge. And people had just been through a war together. All the classes had been mixing together and had a dreadful time. And we emerged determined for things to change. But there was a long time while things were grey and horrible before they began to get better.

Alan: Finally, I’m going to put both of you on the spot. Who has it harder, the old or the young?

Sheila: I can’t answer that. I don’t think either has it harder than the other. I really don’t.

Alice: It’s a difficult question. I’ve only had 24 years on this planet—I haven’t lived through a world war. The only kind of catastrophic thing that’s happened is Covid, and my life was never at risk from that. However, I don’t know how we as a generation will grow old in this world. I think that old age might not be a privilege afforded to us. And for that reason, I would say that we will have it harder.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity