Many graduates are stuck in low-skilled jobs Photo: Dan Kitwood
Show Hide image

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
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.