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Why the young favour pensioner benefits over those for the unemployed

Focus groups reveal that young voters view older groups as more deserving. The sense of welfare as an insurance policy is being lost.

People enter the Jobcentre Plus office in Bath, England. Photograph: Getty Images.

More than three-quarters of over 65s voted at the last election, compared with less than half of those aged 18–24. It is tempting to see this as the real reason behind the Prime Minister’s New Year pledge to protect pensions spending. Behind all the talk of "values" there is a fairly straightforward piece of electoral arithmetic.

In practice, however, this is more than simply pandering to the 'grey vote'. Demos/Ipsos-MORI research shows that those born between 1980 and 2000 are three times as likely to choose pensions than unemployment benefits as a priority for public spending. Young people may have borne the brunt of the downturn, with youth unemployment topping 1 million at times, but support for older generations remains strong. This is what Cameron is playing into when he says that people who have worked hard should have dignity and security in old age – and why George Osborne feels more comfortable targeting benefits for those under-25.

Those who worry that the young are getting a raw deal must engage with why public opinion tilts in this direction. Focus groups reveal that people want to protect pensioners not because they think they will benefit one day, or even that their own parents or grandparents will benefit now, but because they see older groups as more deserving. This is because of a combination of two things: the perception that the elderly are vulnerable, through no fault of their own, and that they have earned entitlements through contributions over time.

The contrast with attitudes to the unemployed is striking. Many see those out of work as more responsible for their own situation and less likely to have put into the system. Britain may have one of the stingiest systems of support for the unemployed in Europe, but that is because those in work fear they are subsidising those who are not. The sense of welfare as an insurance policy, that all those who are able to pay contribute to, is being lost.

Of course, self-interest is part of the story. Older groups put pensions top of their priority list, while younger groups think child benefit is more important. But what the 'grey vote' narrative misses is the extent to which different generations are willing to make sacrifices for one another. There may be more money to be saved in the pensions budget, but there are more votes in protecting it.