Annabel Denham

No, Britain isn’t a gerontocracy

No, Britain isn't a gerontocracy
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Outrage over the government’s National Insurance hike is wholly justified. It is absurd to have the working-age population foot the bill for social care while those over state pension age with substantial incomes and assets don't contribute. It is regressive, reneges on a 2019 manifesto pledge and is nothing more than a sticking plaster to heal the festering wound that is our social care system. As for employer NI, this is a crude payroll tax that discourages employment at the margin and which will translate into lower wages down the line.

But the insistence by inter-generational warriors that we increasingly live in a gerontocracy, where the needs of the young are perpetually disregarded, is less convincing. 'Government thinks only of the old,' they cry, while complaining that for a few months in 2020 they weren’t allowed to date. As always in British politics, however, the true picture is more nuanced than can be conveyed in a 240-character tweet.

Few would disagree that the young have been knocked sideways by this pandemic. Pupils have been deprived of education; students of the university experience. Generation Z is extremely unlikely to suffer severe effects from the virus, yet have put major life events on hold, lost jobs in their droves and face hefty tax rises to plug the Covid debt.

But they should perhaps temper their emotion. First, while there was a large fall in employment levels for young people aged 16-24, and a subsequent rise in unemployment at the start of the pandemic, the latter has since returned to pre-pandemic levels. Unemployment in that age group, by historical standards, remains low. And while the impact of Covid has been greatest for younger workers, older people who lose their jobs are more likely to be at risk of long-term unemployment. As for the view that pensioners are a burden on wider society, this is misguided: many make a massive contribution. Over 10 per cent of over-65s were still in work when Covid struck.

And for many older people (and their carers), the narrative of a well-off senior generation never having had it so good rings hollow. For a start, what is a 'generation'? Millennials, Zoomers or Generation Alpha are not a homogenous group. We wouldn’t make the same sweeping generalisations about distinct groups with other immutable characteristics — women, ethnic minorities — as we do about the 'boomers'.

Many of today’s young face difficult circumstances, but that doesn’t mean, in the words of Lord Willetts, that boomers 'took their future and should give it back'. Yes, some policies favour older generations and delay the young’s graduation into adulthood. The most egregious of these is our planning system which restricts the building of new housing and stops younger people getting on the property ladder. Pensioners, meanwhile, are the happy recipients of a number of odd, indiscriminate give outs, such as the winter fuel allowance and free public transport. The pensions triple-lock is grossly unfair.

But government benefits are not confined to the over-65s. Last year, I was handed £3,000 to put my eldest through nursery. The 15 'free' hours of childcare forces the taxpayer to subsidise parents and creates a large degree of deadweight cost (many receiving it who would’ve paid regardless). The government is now estimating that just 25 per cent of current full-time undergraduates who take out student loans will repay them in full. Children from Reception to Year 2 receive free meals at state school, regardless of parental means.

Nor is it difficult to identify ways in which the old may feel like second-class citizens. The labour market is increasingly orientated towards those who use the internet like it's second nature. Has the inception of the world wide web not been reaped more by those in their 20s than their 60s? According to the ONS, prior to the pandemic, 32 per cent of those who had never or not recently used the internet were aged between 50 and 69 (over a million people in total). How many Gen Zs wouldn’t take this era over any other?

When my mother left school, she had few options beyond becoming a nurse, a secretary or teacher before marrying and becoming a housewife. Today, social pressures are lower and our values much less uniform. 'Boomers' had higher rates of childhood mortality and disease, the tail end of rationing, were physically punished at school and had far fewer toys. In 2019, child mortality rate was 4.3 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared with 21 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1970. Consumer choice has exploded in the last two decades — and whatever you want can be delivered at the click of a button.

The point isn’t that the young have it better, but rather that clichés serve no one. Boomers are no more Brexit-backing bigots than Millennials are all tree-hugging snowflakes. Variations in circumstances within age groups preclude simple assumptions — or answers.