Times are hard for all generations
As the economic gloom continues, some argue that intergenerational inequalities lie at the heart of the problem.
Our Chief Executive, Dr Carole Easton, says stoking intergenerational conflict is a harmful distraction holding us back from resolving the true challenge of deepening wealth inequality.
We are living in hard times. We have been buffeted by crisis upon crisis over the past few years and it is taking its toll on public services, the national economy, families’ finances and individuals’ wellbeing.
In hard times like these, it is important not to look for scapegoats or stir up resentments between groups of society. This is in no-one's interest and risks encouraging prejudice and discrimination and social divisions.
Polly Toynbee, writing in The Guardian this week, talked about her generation, “who were given everything, still go on taking” and whose lives have benefitted from the founding of the NHS, free university tuition and grants, gold-plated pensions, affordable housing that has since rocketed in value. It is the latest in a long tradition of articles that stoke intergenerational conflict - putting the blame for the disadvantages of younger generations at the feet of those who preceded them.
But assigning blame in this way misses two crucial considerations. Older people who may have benefitted from various services and financial arrangements did not set out to deprive those who followed them from enjoying the same benefits and themselves. Older people themselves would continue to benefit if their children and grandchildren had equivalent opportunities.
The other crucial consideration is that “old” is not equivalent to “rich”. The UK Poverty 2023 report shows that one in four 60–64-year-olds are living in poverty - the highest poverty rates of any age group. This situation has been exacerbated by increasing state pension age and with further accelerated rises set to be announced.
Using hugely provocative language such as older people “wanting the blood of young people” has extremely unfortunate and discriminatory implications and in itself is grossly unfair.
While there may well be older homeowners who have seen the value of their family homes bloom into million-pound property investments, there are also record numbers of older renters who are just as vulnerable to skyrocketing cost increases as Generation Rent and who may become priced out of the market altogether when they are no longer able to work and are reliant on their pensions.
In her article, Polly talks about the homeowners of retirement age “rattling around in houses badly needed for families”. But many of these older homeowners are as much at the mercy of a failing housing sector as those who can’t get on the housing ladder in the first place. Millions of older homeowners may want to move home but can’t because of the lack of alternative, accessible, affordable homes within the community they call home. Millions more are living in non-decent homes that they may own but they cannot afford to maintain and make safe.
Generations, be they Baby boomers or Millennials, are incredibly diverse groups of people – it rarely makes much sense to gather them into one homogonous identity any more than it makes sense to say that all Germans like beer or all Spaniards are friendly. By way of solution, the article makes reference to the recommendations of the Intergenerational Commission. But the majority of these recommendations are not about levelling up the disparities between different generations. Importantly, some of the recommendations would benefit all age groups such as a massive housebuilding programme, secure tenancies for renters and an end to zero-hour job contracts.
Or they are policies designed to tackle wealth inequality such as raising council tax rates on the most expensive properties, surcharges on second homes, tightening loopholes around inheritance tax and capital gains and income tax rates redrawn around the top bands.
This is where the argument for intergenerational conflict tends to blur the lines between wealthy and older people and assumes they are one and the same. In truth, there are some wealthy older people and some wealthy younger people whose wealth is increasing while there are some poorer older people and some poorer younger people whose costs-of-living are accelerating far beyond their means to pay for them. There is a desperate need to reverse this growing wealth inequality in society but that won’t happen if we just bundle all older people into the wealthy category and all the younger people into the poorer category. The resultant policies will be ill-targeted and potentially punitive to people who can least afford it.
Even the intergenerational commission report concedes that good fortune is not uniformly gathered among older people. It highlights older female pensioners who have had poorer average pension outcomes than younger women, insecurities in the labour market which can lead to older workers’ early exit from employment and the likelihood that the welfare state’s promise to look after people free-of-charge, from cradle-to-grave is at risk of being broken without significant increased government investment. These groups of older people are not benefitting at the expense of others, they are as much the victim of hard times as anybody else.
What we need to recognise is that there are problems that younger generations are facing that need urgent attention. And there are growing challenges associated with our expanding ageing population which need to be acknowledged and planned for. Both can be tackled by ambitious government policy and this can be achieved simultaneously. Using hugely provocative language such as older people “wanting the blood of young people” has extremely unfortunate and discriminatory implications and in itself is grossly unfair.