Gen Y actually might be poorer than their parents

More spending and less saving means no increase in wealth for the young in 25 years.

One of the most notable aspects of Britain's austerity drive is the generational inequality with which it has been applied. The best example of that is the difference in the government's approach to pre- and post-retirement benefits. The former have been put in a double bind to keep them low, rising at just 1 per cent a year or the rate of increase in CPI, whichever is less. The latter have been "triple-locked", ensuring that they rise at the higher of inflation, wage inflation, or 2.5 per cent.

There's a real reason to complain about that, given that young people have already taken an enormous hit with soaring youth unemployment, a tripling of tuition fees and the removal of EMA. Not to mention the raising of the minimum age at which you are no longer expected to houseshare from 25 to 35, the below-inflation increases to the minimum wage, and the increase in the pensionable age in the future.

But occasionally, the concerns crystallise into a specific phrasing: "this generation will be the first to be poorer than their parents." That is something I have real trouble with, for the simple fact that most of the history of the last 30 years—or 20, or 40, or whatever we take a generational difference to be—there has been growth. Take a look:

Obviously, GDP is not equivalent to personal income; and as I've written elsewhere, for it to be a real comparison, we'd have to take into account population growth, wage stagnation, and issues of distribution.

Nonetheless, by the standard measure, the British economy is over twice the size it was when my parents were my age. There would need to have been an enormous transfer of wealth from the young to the old to overcome the prima facie belief that I am richer than they were. Indeed, you don't have to look far to realise why that might be the case. In 1982, you literally could not have bought—no matter how rich you were—the magic slab of glass and aluminium that connects to all the world's knowledge that I keep in my pocket and moan when I forget to charge it. Technology goes a long way.

But it seems that that prima facie impression really might fall apart if you look into the data. A new study, looking into the American situation, gives us reason to doubt it. The researchers, from the Urban Institute, write that:

Average household wealth approximately doubled from 1983 to 2010, and average incomes rose similarly. For many, the American dream of working hard, saving more, and becoming wealthier than one’s parents holds true. Unless you’re under 40.

Today, those in Gen X and Gen Y have accumulated less wealth than their parents did at that age over a quarter-century ago. Their average wealth in 2010 was 7 percent below that of those in their 20s and 30s in 1983.

In the US, the net worth of those aged 47 or older is roughly double that of someone the same age 27 years earlier. But the net wealth of someone aged less than thirty is no greater than it was 25 years ago.

It's important to note that this is using wealth in the strictest sense possible: net value of owned assets (though it does account for inflation). It's not a discussion of the relative size of the social safety net, or the difference between the quality of consumer goods now and then. As a result, the main driver of the discrepancy is spending and borrowing habits. If younger people today are forced to spend a higher proportion of their income—or borrow even more—than they did 25 years ago, that will show up as a loss.

As, indeed, it does. The authors attribute the difference to the "Great Recession", and particularly the housing crash, which had a bigger impact on net wealth the more of a mortgage you had outstanding. And for those of us too young in 2008 to own a home, the fact that we are now locked out the housing market through crippling deposit requirements also impacts on our wealth, as we are forced to continue renting rather than building equity.

Intergenerational transfers mean that that's a trend which can't last forever. Eventually, old people die. It's kind of a thing they've got going. But even that means that young people are only likely to amass a significant chunk of wealth when their parents die, which may be quite late in life indeed. The impoverished 30-year-old is unlikely to be satisfied by that.

But the really interesting thing is that the young were falling behind even before 2008. The authors explain why:

Factors likely include their reduced job prospects, lower employment rate, and lack of educational attainment that was higher than previous generations.

As for possible solutions, they suggest increasing the amount spent on education, boosting state pension contributions for the young, and subsidising new home-ownership to a much greater degree.

To be clear, I'm not sure if the findings hold for the UK; but many of the same trends are at play, and are exacerbated by the imposition of austerity targeted mainly at programmes used by the young. It may actually be the case that the young of today actually are poorer than their parents.

Some young people—well, Adam and the Ants—in 1981. 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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.