The baby boomers have been accused of stealing their children’s future. Then they were hit with the ‘granny tax’. Geraldine Bedell and Ed Howker join the age wars
They had free education, cheap housing and some even have final-salary pensions – and still the baby boomers complain about the “granny tax”. Meanwhile, according to Financial Times research, twentysomethings will be the first generation who won’t be better off than their parents. Geraldine Bedell, editor of Gransnet, and Ed Howker, co-author of Jilted Generation: How Britain has Bankrupted its Youth, discuss whether a generational war really has broken out.
Ed Howker: One of the dangerous things about this debate is that it’s easy to reduce it to an old-versus-young battle. There are two points – why do young people feel they’re in such a weak position in British society? I would argue that we’ve been colossally bad at planning Britain’s long-term future. The second point is about if and how we transfer wealth. I don’t want to go back to the 80s and before, when pensioner poverty was grotesque, but there are a lot of asset-rich pensioners who argue for the extension of their benefits, and I don’t feel that’s responsible when big chunks of our society, particularly young people – one million unemployed, a third of under-30s living with their parents – really need help at this point, not pensioners.
Geraldine Bedell: What worries me is the language that is often used, like “burden”, “selfish”, “greedy”. If you scratch the surface, what you uncover is a lot of ageism. In terms of what older people contribute, one in three working mothers relies on grandparents for childcare, and the value of that has been estimated at £3.9bn. It’s been estimated that grandparents who bring up their grandchildren, for whatever reason, are contributing £10bn to the economy in saved care costs. What we see on Gransnet is older people not only looking after their grandchildren, but looking after elderly parents as well. If someone in your family has dementia, who is it who pulls everything together? It’s usually a woman in mid-life. I would resist the idea that the boomer generation is parasitic.
EH: But the case has been made pretty conclusively that as a cohort they have done very well. The question is to what extent they do well at the expense of younger people. Take housing – the average age of first-time buyers is now 44 and as we all know, house prices are outrageously high. There are all kinds of reasons – the growth of speculation and the buy to let market – but the fundamental reason is planning has been restricted in Britain and that pushed up value. That has been extraordinarily good for the boomer generation, but it’s disastrous for their kids. Ageism exists, but it’s towards young people, too.
GB: No parent or grandparent feels it’s us against them. People are worried about youth unemployment, not least because it affects our kids and grandchildren. Housing is in a terrible state and politicians are unable to do anything about it because it would detrimentally affect everyone who is an owner-occupier. My generation doesn’t want to sell its houses because we haven’t got proper pensions, we haven’t got anywhere else to put the money without its value declining, and we face the possibility of having to pay for care. There are a lot of great stresses that are tied up in the housing market that affect my generation. It’s about policy, and also about Britain’s national decline. If you are a young person in Brazil or China, things probably look pretty good. Since Thatcher, politicians have found few ways to talk to us other than in terms of “freedom”, and what we need to rediscover are more old-fashioned values – care, compassion, fairness.
EH: I agree. There are many reasons why old and young people should find common cause. Why does the government spend time encouraging 19-year-olds to start businesses when the people with assets and experience, who could start and fund new businesses and create employment, are much older?
GB: I would like to see more internships for older people, and ways out of one kind of employment into another. I’d like to see a movement of older people helping younger people and that might take all sorts of forms, like tithing part of your winter fuel allowance if you can afford to, or mentoring. Your argument focuses on jobs and housing, and I think it negates a lot of good things that have happened for your generation – if you are gay it’s easier now, women have more opportunities, the opportunities thrown up by the internet mean it’s an exciting time to be young. My generation wanted to remake the world as a better place, and what I hear from yours is “we want a proper career and a place on the housing ladder” and it’s a slightly bourgeois argument. Which is not to say you shouldn’t have a place on the housing ladder and jobs.
EH: How dare you dismiss jobs and housing as bourgeois! [laughs] They’re the fundamental underpinning of human, civilised society.
GB: It was a joke.
EH: But it’s a line I’ve heard a lot. Housing and jobs aren’t middle-class concerns. Lives don’t even get started if instead of having employment, young people have long periods of unpaid internships or they have to spend the first 10 years of their adult lives with their parents. If neoliberalism is a world of freedom, where we are all invested in our economy but find the economy is one that huge chunks of the population can’t take part in, then it’s failed.
GB: One of the troubling things that has happened in my lifetime is that now a lot of grandparents or parents will fund their grandchildren getting on to the housing ladder, and that entrenches inequality. This isn’t about old versus young, it’s about rich versus not so rich. I was a child of the welfare state and I was grateful; I can’t see my children having the same opportunities if they had come from the same background I did.
EH: This is the point. It’s about how that inequality gets passed on. If there are lots of jobs and cheap housing, as there were in the 1950s and 60s, it doesn’t matter so much who your parents are. I wonder whether a universal winter fuel payment is the best use of limited resources. Wouldn’t it be better for the government to build public housing, for example? Are there other chunks of welfare which end up not helping the poorest?
GB: I think older people would buy into that if the argument is properly made. What you saw with the “granny tax” was money taken from older people and given to the richest. You can’t expect people not to protest. Similarly with winter fuel payments, if you are on a fixed income and your annuity payments are affected, of course you are going to cling on to every last penny.
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