In the mid-1980s, when I was working for the BBC and buying my first flat in London, it seemed that my generation was having a much harder time of it than the cohort just ahead of us. The journalists and producers who were ten or 20 years older had bought Georgian terraces in Islington or big, red-brick houses in Hampstead on their salaries, and often on a single salary at that. Our lot thought we were being squeezed to the edges of the civilised universe because we were having to flat-hunt in pairs in Stoke Newington or Balham or Acton.
A couple of decades on, and our lives look impossibly gilded to those who followed us. How was I, as a BBC trainee paid less than the lowest-graded secretary, able to buy a two-bed, two-bath maisonette in a handsome Victorian house in Stroud Green, and share the perfectly manageable mortgage with my PhD student boyfriend? What did it feel like to enter adult life with no overdraft and no student debt? Why were companies competing to offer us career paths and final-salary pensions? Where did it all go so right for us, and so wrong for the teens and twentysomethings of today?
Those questions are the starting points for the new book by the Conservative shadow secretary of state for universities and skills, David Willetts, on the generational imbalance in Britain. The Pinch is sold as an examination of how the baby boomers managed to grab the best of everything - money, sex, houses, guilt-free carbon consumption, jobs - and whether they can be persuaded, or compelled, to hand back some of those resources. (It may be a little late for the sex.)
Willetts's point is that the baby boomers, born in the 20 years from 1945, are not necessarily any more selfish than any generation before or after them. Their dominance derives largely from their sheer numbers. Their music, their rebellions and their tastes changed society because they formed such a huge consumer group, and because there was space for so much creative diversity to emerge within that.
Their political weight has been just as strong. Their working years were prosperous because they formed a bulge in the middle of the age range, with relatively few dependants ahead of them, and relatively few behind. Houses were affordable because the competition for them had not yet sent prices soaring. But as the boomers age, their position is going to be threatened. The burden of providing for them, and paying for the pensions and care they were promised, is falling on a smaller, poorer, more badly housed cohort behind them. This group will have to work longer, pay higher taxes, receive fewer services and live in a more degraded environment than their parents and their grandparents did. Unless the boomers do something to address such a fundamental inequality in life chances, this unequal contract may not hold.
Willetts's book is far more wide-ranging and absorbing than its subtitle suggests. It is full of lovely insights. He illustrates the unpredictable costs of pension schemes, for example, by telling us that the last payment to a pensioner from the American civil war fund went to a woman who died 140 years after the conflict ended, having married an ancient veteran when she herself was very young. But his principal concern throughout is to understand why British society functions as it does.
Willetts explores how our long history of small, nuclear families has driven our need for strong government and powerful civil institutions to protect us from the uncertainties of life. He points out how our increasing individualism and readiness to leave relationships has had the effect of making us more dependent on the state, which has had to take on the financial responsibilities that families and breadwinners used to meet. He shows how our consumer culture has encouraged us to think of nothing but living for ourselves and for the day, leaving us without a proper sense of responsibility to the future, or to one another.
This is not, however, any kind of conservative lament for the past. Rather, it is a clear-sighted look at the present. Willetts is interested in how we build altruism and reciprocity, and in the institutions that encourage them in the increasingly atomised and unequal world in which we live.
It is here that I begin to be most intrigued by what the author is going to conclude. For instance, he is eloquent about how individuals' desire to be better parents, and to invest more time and money in their own children, has made them less likely to volunteer in activities that help the offspring of others. The simultaneous collapse of trust in adult-child relationships has left deprived children more socially isolated than ever before, with even less chance of finding paths out of their backgrounds into more rewarding futures.
The author is clearly disturbed by the effect of all this on both inequality and social mobility - as he says, we have become better parents than we are citizens - and thinks we must find ways to challenge it. Similarly, he is clear that soaring house prices entrench the advantages of those whose parents have capital, given that only those offspring can afford to enter the housing market now.
I turned to the last chapter with real curiosity. Was Willetts going to advocate what his arguments seem so often to imply? Would he recommend higher inheritance taxes, on the grounds of both generational and social equality? How would he suggest we combat parents' desire to do ever more to protect their own offspring's interests? Would he suggest measures such as a retrospective graduate tax as a first step in the baby boomers' repayment scheme?
This is one way in which the book disappoints, because the reader is left hanging as the author simply recaps his appeal to us to rethink what society needs. I see his dilemma here. He is a front-bench spokesman whose party is on the verge of taking power. Presumably he can't start challenging existing policies, or suggesting new ones, without being seen to trample all over his colleagues' territory. Yet I was left frustrated. There is a good deal of radicalism implicit in what Willetts writes, and I wanted to know how far he is willing to follow his own arguments, and how far he will push them within his party.
I intend some day, at some political event, to supply him with so much red wine that he lets spill what his own prescriptions would be. And when he does, I promise that New Statesman readers will be the first to know.
Jenni Russell is a commentator and broadcaster
The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children's Future - and Why They Should Give it Back
Atlantic Books, 288pp, £18.99