Many graduates are stuck in low-skilled jobs Photo: Dan Kitwood
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The young are losing the battle of the generations – and it could get even worse

An ageing population is bad news for the young.

It’s fashionable to talk about young people’s great power to influence the general election. But the real story is how easy young people are to ignore - and the lack of impact they will have on May 7.

The last five years have remorselessly proved one thing: people who vote get stuff; non-voters don't get much. According to Ipsos-Mori, under-25s were 32% less likely than over-65s to vote in 2010. Young people have been paying a brutal price for this discrepancy ever since.

Contrary to the myth, this Parliament has not witnessed a ramping up in income inequality. But what has escalated is intergenerational inequality: the state is cossetting grandparents like never before while squeezing the young.

Almost every major spending decision of the last five years has followed this trend. What David Willletts observed five years ago – “The baby-boomers have concentrated wealth in the hands of their own generation” – is truer than ever today.

Working age social security has been cut. Investment in capital projects and infrastructure that would benefit young people has been slashed. All the while, over-65s have enjoyed unprecedented largesse: Sir Alan Sugar still gets his free bus pass and winter fuel allowance. Most extravagant of all is the triple lock – guaranteeing that pension will rise by whichever is highest out of inflation, average earnings or an annual rise of 2.5%. No other state benefit is treated so generously.

OAPs have been recession-proof, and left the entire burden of recession and public spending cuts for the working age population. After tax and benefits, the average pensioner household is 9.4% better off than in 2007-08 – but the average working-age household is 4.6% worse off.

Young people today are the most educated generation in history. But it doesn't matter: the notion that each generation will do better than the last has been shattered. Youth unemployment, though still greater than for other ages, is falling – but mainly because many graduates are doing jobs that do not require degrees. Over the last five years, real median earnings for 22-29-year-olds have fallen 12.7%. Hourly pay for 22-29 year-olds is now lower than at any time since 1998.

Perhaps nothing highlights intergenerational injustice quite like housing. We are used to hearing about the housing “crisis” – but a crisis is meant to have a decisive end-point, not drag interminably on. House prices rising inexorably are not inevitable: they are the result of successive governments failing to build enough houses. By driving up the value of homes, this suits the asset-rich old; for the young, the inertia on housing is a disaster. The “solution” offered this Parliament – the help-to-buy scheme that loads young people with more debt – is nothing of the sort, and the Conservative manifesto promise to ramp up right-to-buy threatens (as John Elledge brilliantly explained) to further depress supply and thereby make the housing crisis much worse. 

The Labour Party is making a great play of its offer to the young, especially its pledge to reduce tuition fees, funded by reducing tax relief on pensions for high earners. But the truth is that it is still shamelessly indulging the grey vote: while it would means-test the winter fuel allowance, saving a measly £100 million a year, it is committed to maintaining TV licenses, free bus passes and the triple lock for all pensioners. That means that, like the Conservatives, the only way it could cut is at the expense of the young. “Both main parties' commitments to ring-fence universal benefits for the over-65s while other generations are likely to suffer scythe-like cuts undermines any claims they may make about improving the lot of young people,” is the depressing verdict of Ashley Seager, the co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation.

It is alluring to think that the young just need to vote for this generational injustice to end. If only it were that simple: as Age UK showed by booing the Prime Minister last month, pensioners amount to a formidable political pressure group. And an ageing population means their voices are becoming ever more powerful: by 2020 over half of the electorate will be over 50 years of age. The only certainty for young people is that not voting will make it even worse. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn's Virgin video is a Jennifer's Ear for modern times

Just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true, regardless of the creative shortcuts.

Memory is a funny thing, in politics as in life. Gordon Brown was the co-architect of New Labour, the longest-serving Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1823 and very probably helped avert the end of money during the financial crisis.

But when James Morris, Ed Miliband’s pollster, ran focus groups in Nuneaton earlier this year, they  found that the incident that most people associated with Brown was of him punching a protestor during the 2001 general election. Except, here’s the thing: Brown never threw the punch at all. It was John Prescott, the then-deputy Prime Minister, who landed the blow.

And although Piggate was the funniest furore that David Cameron (remember: he was accused of having put his penis in a dead pig’s mouth at university) was involved in, it wasn’t the dead pig that focus groups remembered when they were asked about Cameron – right throughout his premiership, it was photos of Cameron cycling to work with a car carrying his papers following on behind that stuck in people’s minds.

The appeal of the latter row, and with the spat between Virgin Trains and Jeremy Corbyn, is that it feeds into an idea that is commonly believed by most people: that politicians are hypocrites. Our brains reward us with feelgood sensations for confirming our beliefs and with negative ones with findings that run contrary to them.

In case you haven’t followed: in the beginning, a viral video of Jeremy Corbyn depicted the Labour leader eschewing a first class upgrade to work in the aisle of a crowded Virgin train. Today, Virgin Trains hit back, revealing CCTV footage showing that there were, in fact, spare seats available from the start of the journey.

Of course, it is in Virgin’s interests to push back against a high-profile criticism of its services (not so much to avoid renationalisation but also the loss of the contract to another company) just as it is in Corbyn’s to have a sharper, video-friendly version of the – 100 per cent authentic – images of him on a bus home that frequently exploded on Twitter and Facebook during last summer’s Labour leadership election.

It feels very close to the so-called “War of Jennifer’s Ear”, the row that erupted over a Labour party political broadcast about the effects of 13 years of Conservative rule on the NHS in 1992. The  advert was based loosely on the operation of a girl whose father, John Bennett, had written to Robin Cook, then Labour’s shadow health secretary.

But the consultant in charge of the operation, who had blamed under-funding in a letter to the Bennett family before the advert came out, U-Turned once the broadcast had aired. (To make matters worse, Jennifer’s mother and grandmother, both Conservatives, also denounced the broadcast.)

Labour was plunged into controversy. The rights and wrongs of the row are still contentious, just as this row is likely to remain too. And it emerged very swiftly that key elements of the planning of the broadcast were shambolic – Cook’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the case were not as thorough as might have been hoped, the consultant had not been spoken to in detail, and the Toryism of Jennifer’s mother and grandmother came as a total shock. It may be that similar behind-the-scenes errors emerge about the Virgin video.

But just as with the Virgin video, the fundamental underpinnings of the Jennifer’s Ear broadcast were true – operations were cancelled and delayed due to underfunding, there are numerous trains that are overcrowded, where people have to sit in aisles, and so on.

Of course, Corbyn has a particular glass jaw over any issue that appears to be “spun” due to his “kinder politics” line. Just as Tony Blair promised to be “purer than pure”. it's a pledge that is the political equivalent of handing your opponent a stick and then politely explaining how best to hit you with it.  

Although the row over Jennifer’s Ear is now largely forgotten, it was one of the many scapegoats for Labour’s shock defeat in 1992, albeit one that every serious study into the loss concluded had nothing to do with the final result. (And it’s worth pointing out that even losing a row about the issues that your party “owns”, be it health or what to do with the railways, tends to be better for your side than talking about issues on which your party is on hostile territory)  Corbyn’s sitting arrangements, like the ear, will have a similarly limited afterlife. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.