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.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.