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.

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.