Essay Competition winner: Has Britain robbed its children?

The winning entry from the New Statesman-Intergenerational Foundation A level essay competition.

In September, the New Statesman and the Intergenerational Foundation teamed up to run an essay competition for A level students. The topic was "has Britian robbed its children?" and the winning entry, by Conor Hamilton, is below.

A recent cover of the Spectator featured an indifferent teen being carried on the back of a speedy elderly man. The message is clear: young people are lazily relying on the old. One reason this narrative is so effective is that there is a widespread anxiety today’s children will not value and uphold the efforts of the generations that came before them. It plays on a fear that young people are not fulfilling their part of an intergenerational contract, preferring to live their lives selfishly. However, what if the breach of contract is the other way around? What if older generations have been living an unsustainably extravagant lifestyle, leaving little for those that will come after them?

The immediate evidence for this would be the UK’s national debt, which has increased from 34 per cent of GDP in 1991 to 90 per cent (pdf). This debt is so large that the interest we pay on it is roughly the same size as our defence budget. Unfortunately, the interest will only increase as our debt shifts to just short of 100 per cent of GDP, as it is predicted to have done by 2015 (pdf). It seems the taxpayers of tomorrow will be struggling with the debts of yesterday for a long time to come.

However, it is not only the profligacy of the last generation, commonly deemed synonymous with the previous Labour government, that will harm the young. The austerity measures pursued by today’s coalition are also unfairly weighted against young people. University funding and housing benefits for the young have been slashed, employment schemes have been abandoned and the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has been scrapped in England. Meanwhile, pensioners are exempted from caps on housing benefit, pensions remain triple-locked and universal benefits such as winter fuel payments, free TV licenses and free bus passes, all remain untouched. None of those benefits existed 16 years ago. Strangely, the current deficit reduction plan shows little concern for those who will have to pay the money back.

It isn’t just governments that have acted irresponsibly. The past set of homeowners have done great damage as well. Aided by a tax-relief on mortgages and the sale of public housing, past generations found it relatively easy to make their first steps onto the property ladder. As a result, the market boomed and Britain developed a skewed economy. Martin Weale, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, found that if house prices had risen at the same rate as the stock market over the last 20 years, they would be 50 per cent cheaper today.

As a result, Britain’s homeowners have stopped investing in useful things like businesses, and have instead starting using their homes as an easy source of cash. Every time someone takes out a second mortgage or downsizes to make the most of their house’s increased value, they bring that over-inflated profit along, even though they have done relatively little to earn it. This cost is then paid by the people entering the market for the first time or looking to upscale. Yet again it is the younger generations that must over-pay because of the actions of the old - a cost which has been estimated at £1.3trn pounds in total. This has dire consequences for the distribution of wealth, which has been shifting in favour of elderly in recent years. A Bank of England study (pdf) found that in 2005, the average wealth of people aged between 25 and 34 had fallen to a third of its 1995 value, whereas the wealth of those aged 55-64 had tripled.

However, homeownership is not the only area in which the older generations have pulled the ladder up behind them. In Britain’s new, globalised “knowledge economy,” places at university are both extremely important and increasingly scarce, yet students now also have to borrow £9,000 to pay for their tuition, whereas those studying 15 years ago would have received it for free. As a result, a student graduating from a three-year university course will have an average debt of £42,000 (pdf) after living costs are factored in. Britain’s politicians have begun penalising those who want greater knowledge and skills, in an era when globalisation makes that education vital.

A lack of affordable housing and heaps of private and public debt won’t just deprive the young people of the chance to accrue material wealth, it will also delay their chances of becoming adults. As Shiv Malik and Ed Howker note in their book Jilted Generation, being an adult is about “family, savings, community, realizing ambitions and ideas, stability, even having children.” Adulthood is about feeling and being in control of your life, an ideal that is now out of reach for many. Two-thirds of people aged 20 to 45 believe they have no prospect of getting on the property ladder and 2.8 million 18 to 44 year olds are postponing children until they can afford a home (pdf). Many of the things that indicated adulthood to previous generations are being denied to this one. Britain is robbing its children of the chance to be grown-up.

Britain’s children won’t be the only ones that are hurt. All generations rely upon each other at some point in their life. When young, we rely on our parents to care for us and teach us right from wrong. When middle-aged we have to work, so that we can provide for the young and the elderly who can no longer take care of themselves. Then, when we are too old to work ourselves, we in turn will rely on those in work to care and provide for us. We live amid a web of loose social agreements about when to give and receive, underpinned by mutual advantage and tradition.

Britain has robbed its children. It has stopped them from buying a house and failed to support them in the scramble for education and jobs in a globalised world, while saddling them with private debt. Today’s twenty-something, who should be enjoying the best years of their lives, are trapped in uncertainty. If they manage to break out of this uncertainly, they find themselves citizens of a nation riddled with debt that will take until at least 2046 to pay off. It would not be surprising if, when this generation comes to take control of the country, they will lacks the funds, or the will, to carry on providing the generous support currently given to the elderly. Those now in control of Britain have not only robbed their children, but potentially stolen from themselves as well.
 

The austerity measures pursued by today’s coalition are unfairly weighted against young people. Photo: Getty
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Sadiq Khan is probably London's new mayor - what will happen in a Tooting by-election?

At the time of writing, Sadiq Khan appears to have a fairly comfortable lead over Zac Goldsmith in the London mayoral election. Which means (at least) two (quite) interesting things are likely to happen: 1) Sadiq Khan is going to be mayor, and 2) there is going to be a by-election in Tooting.

Unlike the two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield that Labour won at a canter last night, the south London seat of Tooting is a genuine marginal. The Conservatives have had designs on the seat since at least 2010, when the infamous ‘Tatler Tory’, Mark Clarke, was the party’s candidate. Last May, Khan narrowly increased his majority over the Tories, winning by almost 3,000 votes with a majority of 5.3 per cent. With high house prices pushing London professionals further out towards the suburbs, the seat is gentrifying, making Conservatives more positive about the prospect of taking the seat off Labour. No government has won a by-election from an opposition party since the Conservative Angela Rumbold won Mitcham and Morden from a Labour-SDP defector in June 1982. In a nice parallel, that seat borders Tooting.

Of course, the notion of a Tooting by-election will not come as a shock to local Conservatives, however much hope they invested in a Goldsmith mayoral victory. Unusually, the party’s candidate from the general election, Dan Watkins, an entrepreneur who has lived in the area for 15 years, has continued to campaign in the seat since his defeat, styling himself as the party’s “parliamentary spokesman for Tooting”. It would be a big surprise if Watkins is not re-anointed as the candidate for the by-election.

What of the Labour side? For some months, those on the party’s centre-left have worried with varying degrees of sincerity that Ken Livingstone may see the by-election as a route back into Parliament. Having spent the past two weeks muttering conspiratorially about the relationship between early 20th-Century German Jews and Adolf Hitler before having his Labour membership suspended, that possibility no longer exists.

Other names talked about include: Rex Osborn, leader of the Labour group on Wandsworth Council; Simon Hogg, who is Osborn’s deputy; Rosena Allin-Khan, an emergency medicine doctor who also deputises for Osborn; Will Martindale, who was Labour’s defeated candidate in Battersea last year; and Jayne Lim, who was shortlisted earlier in the year for the Sheffield Brightside selection and used to practise as a doctor at St George’s hospital in Tooting.

One thing that any new Labour MP would have to contend with is the boundary review reporting in 2018, which will reduce the number of London constituencies by 5. This means that a new Tooting MP could quickly find themselves pitched in a selection fight for a new constituency with their neighbours Siobhan McDonagh, who currently holds Mitcham and Morden, and/or Chuka Umunna, who is the MP for Streatham. 

According to the Sunday Times, Labour is planning to hold the by-election as quickly as possible, perhaps even before the EU referendum on June 23rd.

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.