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.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation