Generation Strains

The generational divide isn't just in how much we get, but also how much we want to give.

Ed Miliband’s comments in a recent interview that "redistribution is important but it's not the only route to social justice" could be more important than even he realises. New research shows not just that there has been an overall decline in support for redistribution of wealth through the tax and benefits system, but that we may be witnessing a generational shift in attitudes. Younger generations are less supportive of redistribution than their parents.

The overall decline in support for redistribution is relatively well understood. The percentage of the population agreeing with the statement, "the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes," peaked in 1989 and has been on a broad, downward trajectory ever since. More people disagreed than agreed with the statement for the first time in 2007.

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But it is the second, generational, aspect that poses perhaps the most profound, long-term questions about Britain’s welfare settlement. Not only are younger generations less supportive of redistribution than older ones, but attitudes appear to remain steady within cohorts over time. There is little sign of a "lifecycle effect", in which our attitudes become more like those of our parents as we grow older. The implication is that the declining public support for redistributive policies may not be cyclical but rather a glimpse of the future.

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These are the initial findings of an ongoing study of attitudes towards welfare. Should this generational shift be replicated across the welfare state – with, for example, greater scepticism towards public pensions and elderly care – the implications could be seismic. Redistributive policies in particular and welfare state in general, require buy-in from significant proportions of society to remain sustainable. Changes in attitudes are therefore at least as important as demographic and financial pressures – not least because they will shape our collective response to them.

In the short-term the government has guaranteed a "triple lock" to protect the generosity of pensions; in the medium term a "triple block" of austerity, ageing and attitudes could force us to reconsider our current models of provision. In such a scenario, policymakers would have no option but to face up to some big questions. What has caused this fragmentation of support between the generations? Is it linked to people’s own experiences of the welfare state, or to wider social currents that policy has far less purchase on? Can it be reversed? If not, what are the policy responses that are consistent both with changing attitudes and long-standing policy commitments?

"The social democratic project is not just about spending more money" Miliband recently insisted. "We have surely learnt that it is not enough merely to keep funding more and more generous tax credits", urged David Cameron before the last election. Governments cannot depend solely on "the power of the central state to shift money around", argued Nick Clegg in the same year. Miliband, Clegg and Cameron had all better hope they are right. Two "A"s – austerity and ageing – already cast a long shadow over social welfare policy. We may be seeing the emergence of a third equally significant pressure: attitudes.

Pensioners in Blackpool. Photograph: Getty Images

Bobby Duffy is managing director of the Ipsos MORI social research institute and Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.