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.

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. 

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

Duncan O’Leary is deputy director of Demos

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Iain Duncan Smith says what most Brexiters think: economic harm is a price worth paying

The former cabinet minister demonstrated rare candour by dismissing the "risks" of leaving the EU.

Most economists differ only on whether the consequences of Brexit would be terrible or merely bad. For the Leave campaign this presents a problem. Every referendum and general election in recent times has been won by the side most trusted to protect economic growth (a status Remain currently enjoys).

Understandably, then, the Brexiters have either dismissed the forecasters as wrong or impugned their integrity. On Tuesday it was the turn of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), one of the most revered bodies in Westminster. In response to its warning that Brexit would mean a further two years of austerity (with the hit to GDP wiping out George Osborne's forecast surplus), the Leave campaign derided it as a "paid-up propaganda arm of the European commission" (the IFS has received £5.6m from Brussels since 2009). 

The suggestion that the organisation is corrupt rightly provoked outrage. "The IFS - for whom I used to work - is not a paid up propaganda arm of the EU. I hope that clears that up," tweeted Brexit-supporting economist Andrew Lilico. "Over-simplified messaging, fear-mongering & controversialism are hard-minded campaigning. Accusing folk of corruption & ill intent isn't." The Remain campaign was swift to compile an array of past quotes from EU opponents hailing the IFS. 

But this contretemps distracted from the larger argument. Rather than contesting the claim that Brexit would harm the economy, the Leave campaign increasingly seeks to change the subject: to immigration (which it has vowed to reduce) or the NHS (which it has pledged to spend more on). But at an event last night, Iain Duncan Smith demonstrated rare candour. The former work and pensions secretary, who resigned from the cabinet in protest at welfare cuts, all but conceded that further austerity was a price worth paying for Brexit. 

"Of course there's going to be risks if you leave. There's risks if you get up in the morning ...There are risks in everything you do in life," he said when questioned on the subject. "I would rather have those risks that we are likely to face, headed off by a government elected by the British people [and] governing for the British people, than having a government that is one of 27 others where the decisions you want to take - that you believe are best for the United Kingdom - cannot be taken because the others don't agree with you."

For Duncan Smith, another recession is of nothing compared to the prize of freedom from the Brussels yoke. Voters still reeling from the longest fall in living standards in recent history (and who lack a safe parliamentary seat) may disagree. But Duncan Smith has offered an insight into the mindset of a true ideologue. Remain will hope that many more emulate his honesty. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.