Fraser Nelson

The complicated truth about generational inequality in the UK

The complicated truth about generational inequality in the UK
Text settings

I’ve spent the last few weeks making a documentary for Channel 4’s Dispatches on what I regard as one the biggest new arguments of our times: the generation wars. The idea that (as David Willetts famously put it) the ‘baby boomers took their children’s’ future’ – and ‘should give it back’. I’ve been talking to various experts, being heckled at protest marches, wading through research and putting the established wisdom to the test. The result is on Channel 4 documentary:  The Wealth Gap.

Only Channel 4 really does documentaries about ideas: the asset bubble, the relationship between wealth and longevity. What made this one tougher is that we ended up making a rather different film than we thought we’d be making at first. We started off talking to various luminaries who told us the conventional story: the young are screwed, the old are minted. This, pretty much, had been my take too. So the documentary set about filling in the gaps.

But midway through, during the fact-checking process, we came across research that showed things in a rather different light.  Here are the figures for general earnings. Those reports saying the earnings for 28-year-olds is the same as it was 25 years ago? It is (as economists say) not supported by the data. Here's the figures that the Office for National Statistics kindly compiled for us:-

And when you look at disposable income it's up by about a third: the young, today, have working tax credits that weren't around a generation ago. So their incomes significantly are higher than the generation before them. And what about the percentage of young people still living with their parents? The data suggests even that hasn't changed much.

This wasn't what we expected when we set out to make the film. This is a complicated story, easy to write (I wrote it for the Daily Telegraph today) but harder to depict on TV.

The whole process gave me an insight into the world of television documentaries. If Channel 4 was a purely commercial station, I suspect they’d have persisted with the straightforward narrative: greedy oldies! They nicked all the houses! That would have got more viewers, and probably have gone down a lot better. But when we found evidence that contradicted this narrative (evidence that has not before come to light, as the ONS has never published these figures before) they restructured the argument, commissioned more filming (at some expense) and kept polishing and restructuring until we had a narrative that matched the facts which we uncovered.

That's not to say I found the young have an easy time of it. The housing market is spinning away from them, and home ownership rates have plunged. Assets have soared over the last ten years, but look at how unevenly it has been distributed:-

And as Iain Duncan Smith tells me, the triple lock pension pledge cost far more than anyone imagined: he says the extra cost was £18 billion.

It would have been far easier, journalistically, to stick with the more familiar and simplistic theme - and we certainly had enough ammunition for it. The temptation is strong in television where you don’t just delete the preceding paragraph: you need to dump shedloads of expensive footage, send a crew out and do it all again. And ask, constantly, for all the purity of argument – is it engaging? Why would someone stick with this at 8.15pm on a Monday, rather than go and make a cup of tea? The director recut the programme to give it energy, pace and make a virtue of the grittier narrative. Channel 4 kept going with this because the main purpose of this documentary was not to max out viewers, but to conform to its remit of challenging conventional wisdom, and advocate alternative points of view.

This made me appreciate the importance of Channel 4’s strange position: publicly owned, but self-financing and with a remit to pursue fresh lines of argument that contradict conventional wisdom. Had Channel 4 been privatised (as was on the cards last year) this obligation would have vanished. And with it, much of the (expensive, unprofitable) current affairs output, ergo less variety of views on the box. Sky doesn’t really do these kinds of documentaries; the BBC’s ones tend to reinforce conventional wisdom. This is why Thatcher wanted to create Channel 4: to challenge the BBC/ITV duopoly and also challenge groupthink, wherever it emerged.

It's tougher to make minority arguments at the Beeb because of its own internal opinion police. When John Humphrys did so with a brilliant documentary on welfare culture, he was hauled up in front a BBC star chamber and found guilty of incorrect opinions.

Yes, Ch4 News might have a leftwards bias. But only Channel 4 would have shown The Great Global Warming Swindle, or Benefits Street. Both caused critics to go bananas and haul their producers in months' worth of complaints afterwards. Anyone thinking of making a film that will annoy enough lobby groups now needs to budget for weeks, perhaps months, of complaints and inquiries afterwards. This is why so much current affairs television keeps within what the Swedes call the åsiktskorridor (opinion corridor). Ch4 is full of people who like to blow up that corridor.

I was lucky in having the multi-talented Duncan Staff, who filmed and directed this himself (and now has plenty of beautifully-shot footage on the cutting room floor) and to Balihar Khalsa, who helped us keep the show on the road. I’m indebted to them, to Blakeway (the company that produced this) and to Channel 4 for asking us to make a documentary that would go wherever the evidence led.

PS Some few people in the comments seem to think I disprove or trash Willett's thesis: it's not as simple as that either! The issue is serious and the anger is real. But.... anyway, more tomorrow.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

Topics in this articleSocietychannel 4culture