The coming battle between old and young

Twentysomethings face living standard squeezes, while those in their 60s have never had it so good.

In the First Thoughts column of the magazine this week, I wrote about an idea which is currently gaining ground: that the young are being squeezed at the expense of the old.

Of all the arguments I have with my parents - both retired and in their sixties - the most intractable is whether they are the luckiest generation who ever lived. Having raised four children, they don't feel rich. Yet they live in a mortgage-free house and receive pensions from their former employers. They both grew up in houses with no TV or indoor loo, yet are currently in New Zealand, visiting their grandchildren.

I can't imagine my retirement will be anything like that. For a start, I remain stubbornly off the housing ladder and it will stay that way while London prices average £406,424 and lenders ask for a 25 per cent deposit. Lord knows what state the NHS will be in by the time I really need it. In the next few decades, the bill for Labour's assorted PFI follies will land on my generation's doormat. Pension? Ha!

This divide has been highlighted before - notably in Shiv Malik's and Ed Howker's book Jilted Generation - but it's becoming more stark as the coalition's economic policies hit the young hard. While graduates get saddled with thousands of pounds of debt and turfed out into a contracted jobs market, pensioners have winter fuel allowances and bus passes doled out to them without means-testing. As Daniel Knowles wrote in the Telegraph on 12 March: "It is a painful irony that the youngest government in history seems to be engineering such a spectacular flow of money towards the oldest."

All this is my way of saying that the mansion tax sounds like a sensible idea, even if it will affect the older generation disproportionately. When I read about Joan Bakewell, who bought a house for £12,000 that is now worth up to £4m, I struggle to empathise with her pain at the thought of being forced to downsize. I wish I knew what it's like to be sentimentally attached to a home but I've just moved into my fourth flat in five years.

Don't cry any tears for me - my twenties involve more skinny lattes and foreign holidays than my parents' ever did - but don't cry for the "asset-rich, cash-poor" baby boomers, either.

The piece I referred to, by Daniel Knowles, is worth reading in full. It explains how housing and childcare costs skew the appealingly simple picture of higher-rate taxpayers in middle-age as "rich" and pensioners as poor:

Most of those at the bottom of the income scale are actually pensioners, with lots of assets and relatively few outgoings - £25,000 a year is a lot if you have no mortgage to pay. They are getting off free, laughing as they swipe their free bus passes on the way to the bank.

Which brings me to my point: the Chancellor thinks that he is spreading the pain evenly, according to income. But he is actually spreading it unevenly, according to age. The people bearing the brunt of this Government's spending cuts and tax rises are young families. If they are poorer, their tax credits are frozen, their teenagers have lost the Educational Maintenance Allowance, VAT has gone up and the services they depend on - the school system, the nurseries and so on - are being starved of funds (even as the NHS, which old people use, gets more). If they are slightly richer, it's the child-benefit cut, the public-sector pay freeze, petrol taxes and the devaluation of the pound that hurt most.

It is a long-established principle that, as Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, "the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion". But what Mr Osborne's policies prove is that we struggle to properly define who "the rich" are. Because we ignore age and wealth, "progressive" policies such as the child-benefit cut often aren't; they don't genuinely reflect ability to pay.

By coincidence, Saturday's Financial Times picked up the theme, splashing on an analysis of living standards which showed that the "disposable household incomes of people in their 20s have stagnated over the past 10 years just as older households are capturing a much greater share of the nation's income and wealth".

The result is that "the median living standards of people in their 20s have now slipped below those of people in their 70s and 80s". And as Alistair Darling told the paper: "You can't honestly say to younger people any longer, you'll do better than your father or mother's generation." The word "alienation" increasingly crops up, and you can see in the student protests and movements such as UK Uncut that some youngsters are beginning to vocalise their feelings of being dealt an unfair hand.

While this idea is not new -- see Shiv Malik and Ed Howker's Jilted Generation or David Willett's The Pinch -- it is likely to become increasingly bitterly fought terrain as austerity measures bite. The conventional political wisdom is that because older people are more likely to vote than younger ones, it is safer to target the latter with potentially unpopular measures. (There's also something to the fact that most heavyweight political commentators are of a certain age... ) George Osborne has taken his axe to a raft of benefits aimed at the working population - such as child tax credits - the goodies handed out to pensioners, such as free bus passes and winter fuel allowances, have been left untouched.

The FT pointed to Britain moving to a "family welfare" model, with the younger generations relying on the elder more, as happens in some Mediterranean countries. But, as John Hills of the LSE points out, this hurts those who can't, for example, rely on the Bank of Mum and Dad for a housing deposit, or help with university costs:

"The thing to focus on isn't so much the generational conflict itself, because a lot of the wealth of the previous generation will be passed down, or is being passed down... it's the people who are locked out of that in both generations. It's clearly harder as a young person if you don't have that kind of family support."

These are complicated issues, but a clear picture emerges: that 20, 30 and 40-somethings are bearing the brunt of the coalition's economic policies. But which politician is brave enough to make that argument?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.