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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.