The young are losing the battle of the generations – and it could get even worse

An ageing population is bad news for the young.

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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.

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