You can blame it on David Willetts. A while back, he published a book called The Pinch arguing that the older generation had swindled the young out of their rightful economic inheritance and should give it back. Baby boomers (those born soon after the war) had enjoyed free university tuition, affordable housing and a thriving economy. Yet the legacy they have left to the young was a crash, eye-watering tuition fees and a gargantuan national debt. The book drew a new dividing line between the young and the old. It was a manifesto for generational jihad.
It was, of course, a fascinating and original thesis which has attracted many followers. But it was also deeply misleading and perverse, and grossly unfair to boomers. Indeed, one might even coin the term ‘boomophobe’ (or possibly even ‘self-hating boomer’, since he is of a certain age himself, as indeed am I) to describe Mr Willetts and his acolytes. And we can already see the social divisions which this thesis has provoked.
Heaven knows, the boomers have enough on their collective conscience, having been responsible for inventing sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, not to mention the destruction of the nuclear family, patriotism and the education system. These crimes, however, are all strangely absent from the Willetts roll of shame. Instead, the older generation is accused of dumping intolerable economic burdens upon the young, who are said to be carrying the boomers on their financial backs. Doubtless inspired by this call to generational arms, young people have cast themselves as yet another victim group in the miserable army of the oppressed.
Others not normally associated with manning the social barricades have also come out as supporters of revolutionary Pinchism. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, to name but one, has accused the boomers of being a ‘fortunate generation’ with ‘severe questions’ to be answered about ‘inter-generational equity’. Instructive, isn’t it, that someone’s good fortune is to be considered intrinsically unjust and thus justifies a moral imperative to rob him of it. This inter-generational aggression, however, has simply got its facts the wrong way round. For far from older folk leeching off the young, the statistics — if you dig deep enough — show that the elderly are actually getting the country out of this mess.
Once upon a time, people stopped working when they got to retirement age. Now, older people are continuing to work and contributing to the economy. Since the crash, the going has been pretty tough. But the tough elderly have got going. When the jobs market peaked in April 2008, a record 690,000 over-65s were working. Now, it’s a million. Somehow, almost a third of a million more British pensioners — facing bombed-out annuities — have come running on to the labour market and found work. The last estimate shows them making a £40 billion contribution to the economy — but that was 2010, so the current figure will be far greater.
Yet since the crash, far fewer of the working-aged (i.e. between 16 and 65) are in jobs. When the Prime Minister boasts about record numbers in work (which he does, regularly) he has pensioners to thank. If it weren’t for them, there would be some 160,000 fewer people in work. This raises the question: just who is leeching off whom?
As for the canard that the elderly are somehow taking jobs away from the young, that’s not true either. A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded there was ‘no evidence of long-term crowding-out of younger individuals from the labour market by older workers’. Today, 20 per cent of British youth are unemployed — but the jobs market still absorbs some 600 immigrants a day and more oldies than ever. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that jobs are there, for those who want to take them. And in Britain, the recovery seems to be a joint venture between immigrants and pensioners.
Contrary to Keynesian orthodoxy, which argues that slumps are caused by lack of demand, the determining factor behind the UK recovery seems to be the supply of willing workers. It is harder than ever to regard the over-65s as a burden, given that a million of them are now taxpaying employees. Across all sectors, businesses report the benefits of employing older workers. McDonald’s, for example, reports a 20 per cent higher performance in outlets employing workers aged over 60 as well as younger workers.
Ah, say the boomophobes, but the older generation are sitting on small goldmines in the shape of the value of their houses, while we can’t get on to the housing ladder at all. Younger people have even been described in the press as the ‘jilted generation’ — children born since the turn of the century who will have to live with their parents for longer and will struggle to afford their own homes. Well yes, it’s true that house prices have been pushed sky-high, particularly in the south-east. But that’s a distortion caused by social change and the policies of successive governments — high immigration rates, family breakdown pushing up demand, and not enough homes being built to keep pace.
Even so, moan the Pinchists, these valuable houses owned by older people represent a windfall, which is very unfair because they didn’t earn it. They just aren’t entitled to be so asset-rich at all. The cry has therefore gone up: soak the hoarding OAPs! Just look at them, all so smug and well-off and complacent! They had free orange juice as children! They had grants to enable them to go to university! They had jobs and houses and cars! They are now living longer, they can swan off on exotic holidays whenever they feel like it, and they even seem fitter than us in the gym!
And it goes beyond a moan. There is a call for action against a generation who are blamed for the last government crashing the economy, saddling us with astronomical debts and mortgaging the entire future of the nation through PFI schemes. The Pinchists ask if there is a single politician who will now rise up against this rule by old people (there is even a word for it: gerontocracy), take a slice from their protected pensions and redistribute it to those who really deserve it — the indebted young! Strip the well-off wrinklies of their Freedom Passes! Confiscate their winter fuel allowance! Chuck their free TV licences into the garbage where they belong!
Well I don’t know about the inter-generational bit, Bishop Chartres, but this is surely not a definition of equity by anyone’s standards. If the old saved, are they to be blamed for the subsequent fruits of this thrift? After a lifetime of paying for the welfare state, is it so bad that they draw on the account into which they paid so heavily? Isn’t it only civilised that those who first defended and then rebuilt this nation are afforded some respect and extra consideration? The Pinchists reject it all. Anyone who has anything that anyone else doesn’t have doesn’t deserve to have it, they argue — even if they have slogged their guts out for it. Is that not the sacred dogma of the religion of redistribution?
What this totally ignores is the many ways in which older people are subsidising the younger generations. According to a report by JP Morgan Asset Management, more than one third of grandparents say they are contributing to their family’s everyday living costs. A fifth have helped their children raise a deposit for a house, a quarter have paid some of the money towards a holiday, and just over a third buy school uniforms and clothes for their grandkids or help cover the cost of school trips. Figures from Carers UK show that 1.3 million pensioners are caring for disabled or older loved ones, up a third over the last 10 years. This saves the economy £119 billion a year.
Everyone has suffered from economic short-termism, fractured regulation, irresponsible bankers — and from the reckless spending of all those consumers, old and young, who have behaved as if there were no economic tomorrow. Yes, it is true that some older people are now pretty well-off. The same is true for some younger people. But according to Age Concern, a quarter of pensioner couples have less than £1,500 in savings between them. More than 1.6 million pensioners live below the poverty line. And they lived through the years when boom turned into bust, and when near-zero interest rates wiped out the value of people’s savings. Ever heard of negative equity?
The readiness to point the finger at the elderly is all of a piece with a particularly odious British attitude. In most societies, the elderly are revered. But the British treat them worse than in almost any other European country, coming 17th out of 20 in terms of the percentage of national income spent on long-term residential care and home help for pensioners. Today’s boomers face the grim prospect of being increasingly dumped in old people’s homes by younger generations who no longer feel any duty to care.
Older people also face the prospect of being starved or dehydrated to death at the hands of doctors or nurses in an NHS which has proven, in recent weeks, how badly it can treat those are least able to complain.
Of course, all such generalisations do scant justice to the complexities of reality. There are plenty of selfish older people and selfless younger folk. But that’s the point about Pinchism — it avoids facing the difficult decisions that need to be made by creating caricaturable scapegoats instead.
The unfairly pilloried elderly could return fire. They could argue that the younger generations have been cosseted by welfare, are awarded university degrees regardless of knowing next to nothing, spend their days preening on Facebook or texting friends on their iPhones while turning up their noses at the jobs on offer and producing an unstoppable flow of fatherless children — all the time moaning that society owes them a living.
But to say that would be as nasty and unfair and distorted as the war against the older generation. So I won’t. The fact is that — as someone once said — we’re all in this together, and the generations will sink or swim together. That’s the real pinch.