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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle