The ideas corner: Mind the age gap

James Harkin advises politicians not to pit children against parents

Trend watchers should take their hats off to the versatility of Team David Cameron. No sooner had the Tory leader tried to out-young Tony Blair - remember his first Prime Minister's Questions, where he taunted Blair that "he was the future once" - than he realised what a dangerous game he was playing. Young people, Team Cameron had forgotten, are much less likely to vote in general elections than their parents. According to a report published by Age Concern early this year, it is middle-aged baby boomers, rather than the twentysomethings once coveted by Cameron, who are the key to winning the next general election . . . and most of them haven't yet made up their mind how to vote.

All this explains why in recent weeks Cameron has found himself both at Age Concern talking to grannies and sitting uncomfortably on the floor launching "young adult schemes". In trying to play both ends of the generational spectrum, Cameron was doing what any good marketer now advises: targeting his message across different demographics to ensure maximum impact. In playing generational politics, too - champion ing first youth and then maturity - Cameron is playing a familiar game.

In the United States, for example, there has been a backlash against the middle-aged, whose greed and wastefulness are seen as the root of every other group's problems. In his book Balsamic Dreams, the American satirist Joe Queenan argues that the baby boomers lived it up on state subsidies in their salad days and are now kicking away the ladder of social security for everyone else. In France last month, a journalist ignited a political storm when she predicted a "war between generations", started by thirtysomethings aggrieved that their parents enjoyed higher standards of living than they did.

Much of this conflict between the generations is media confection. But the discussion does draw attention to an important political truth: as we live longer, there are simply more generations around, and each of them - from great-grandparent to newborn child - can be said to have its own particular stake in the welfare state and the pensions system. The result is what some demographers and trend gurus dub "generational congestion": too many different age groups and not enough cultural and political space for them to avoid careering into each other.

Beware the hype, however. On the same day as Cameron was doing his turn at Age Concern, the retail surveyors Mintel published a survey showing that middle-aged women are "down-ageing" with such gusto that they are increasingly shopping in the same places as their daughters - for the same brands, and sometimes even for the same size.

So although there may be more generational animosity, the cultural gap between the generations is probably narrower than it has ever been. That is something for politicians to consider.