Britain's youth are steadily being treated worse and worse

Intergenerational index spikes at 128 for 2010

Britain's intergenerational unfairness was 28 per cent worse in 2010 than it was in 2000, and over 50 per cent worse than it was 1990, according to new research from the Intergenerational Foundation. The increase from 2009 to 2010 alone was almost 6 per cent.

The IF created the intergenerational index to measure, in a systematic way, the extent of intergenerational unfairness. Normalised so that the year 2000 has an intergenerational index of 100, we can see the steady increase throughout the early noughties turn into a sharp spike following the crash:

Looking at the breakdown of the index reveals the reasons for the recent spike. The IF look at nine different areas: Unemployment, housing, pensions, government debt, participation in democracy, health, income, environmental impact and education. Of the nine, only environmental impact has been consistently getting better, with the UK's greenhouse gas emmissions dropping 15 of the last 20 years. Every other measure has been getting worse.

There are some questionable choices in the index, however. Worst of all is the measurement of government debt. It is not clear whether increasing government debt is intergenerationally unfair at all. Right now, for instance, the absolute best thing for young people in Britain would be for government debt to increase as the coalition u-turns on austerity. The generalised excuse, that debt is borrowing against future generations to spend now, doesn't mean that all debt is bad for future generations; yet the index treats it as such.

Similarly, the chosen measures for "participation in democracy" are average age of councillors and turnout of 25 to 34 year-olds. It seems odd to take what is definitely a choice on the part of young people not to get involved in politics and pretend that it is on the same level as, say, the precipitous drop in housebuilding to the lowest levels since the second world war:

Much of the recent spike, however, comes from components of the index which are inarguably on-topic. The large increase in government debt between 2009 and 2010 raised its part of the index by almost thirty points, but three other areas also rose by over ten points each. As seen above, the housing situation has got worse rather sharply, leading its part of the index to rise from 120 to 130.

The index also highlights pensions as a growing problem. The cost of state pensions in relation to the size of the workforce, and the cost of unfunded public sector pensions, pushes the pension section of the index up by another 13 points.

But one of the worst changes is that of education. A spike in the average private contribution to tuition fees – and this is for 2010, so that increase is nothing to do with this government – meant that education went from a steady contributor to intergenerational fairness, with costs going down and standards increasing, to a component as bad as it has been since 1999.

The full affect of the various components is broken down:

Laurence J. Kotlikoff, a professor of Economics at Boston University, ends his foreword:

As the Intergenerational Foundation's vitally important Intergenerational Index makes vividly clear, the UK is failing miserably. . . The Index can be viewed as an Adults' Report Card, and it shows a failing grade.

For all the methodological problems, the conclusion seems clear: when the recession hit, the response of the Labour government was to pile the costs on to young people and future generations, while saving those who were deemed to have already contributed from too much hardship. Many of the component measures can only have gone down in the last few years, but how far remains to be seen.

Pensions may be one of the largest contributors to intergenerational inequality. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change