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Boomers vs millennials: the defining schism in UK politics

Brexit and the housing crisis have supercharged the divide between Britain’s young and old. 

On the afternoon of 23 June 2016, Beth Jenkinson, 19, entered the Wesley Memorial Church in central Oxford and voted for Britain to remain in the European Union. Jenkinson, the first in her family to attend university, knew some Leave voters (including three of her four grandparents back in Yorkshire) but no one she met that day supported Brexit – or expected it. “We were all convinced that it would be fine,” she says now.

When Jenkinson woke the next morning to confirmation that the UK had become the first country to vote to leave the EU, she felt “sad and angry to be British” – and resentful towards the older generations.

Three-quarters of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Remain. But two-thirds of over-65s (the demographic that turned out in the greatest numbers) favoured Brexit. “I wish we’d had the same vote in ten years’ time. A lot of people who voted Leave wouldn’t be here,” says Jenkinson, who now works as a researcher at the Intergenerational Foundation, a London-based think tank. Her judgement is harsh, but it reflects the despair that many young people feel about their prospects.

Vince Cable, the 74-year-old Liberal Democrat leader, is equally frank about the Brexit vote when we speak one morning in his parliamentary office. “The older generation shafted the young. Their life chances have been radically affected by what the older generation has decided.”

Class has historically been the main determinant of how people vote in Britain, and social divisions have widened, rather than diminished. As the cultural critic Richard Hoggart observed in 1989, “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.” Yet age is now the best predictor of how people cast their ballots. At the 2017 general election, the generation gap was the largest since polling records began. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, 62 per cent voted for Labour, compared with 27 per cent for the Tories. For older people, the positions were reversed: 61 per cent of over-65s voted for the Conservatives and 25 per cent for Labour. At the same time, the class electoral divide significantly narrowed. Both support for Labour among the middle class and support for the Conservatives among the working class rose by 12 points.

Divisions between the young and old are hardly a new phenomenon. In the turbulent 1960s, the baby boomers railed against the political and cultural mores of their parents. It was a period of youthful insurgency – in Paris and beyond, students took to the streets and dreamed of revolution. But rarely has the generational divide been as pronounced as it is today.

What caused this chasm? And can any political party – indeed, any group or institution – hope to bridge it?

Nearly eight years ago, the then Conservative shadow minister David Willetts published The Pinch, an account of “how the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back”. He charted how the old were hoarding the benefits of a market economy (property wealth, generous private pensions) while the young were left with its burdens (expensive housing, job insecurity, student debt, inadequate or non-existent pensions).

“I was taking a bit of a flyer. Some people thought it was rather eccentric,” Willetts, now 61 and the chair of the Resolution Foundation think tank, tells me. But he had identified a genuine schism, one that his party would do much to widen.

In coalition with the Liberal Democrats from May 2010, the Conservatives tripled university tuition fees from £3,000 to £9,000 (in defiance of the Lib Dems’ manifesto promise), abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance (a payment of up to £30 a week for 16- to 18-year-olds living in low-income households) and capped working-age benefit increases at 1 per cent from 2013 (benefits were frozen altogether from 2016). A cap on total benefits payments was introduced and set at £26,000 per household, while the maximum housing benefit was set at £21,000.

Pensioners were spared social security cuts – which allowed David Cameron to keep his campaign promises to older voters. “I’m not having one of those bloody split-screen moments,” he told his aides (mindful of Nick Clegg’s troubles). From 2010 onwards, the coalition protected the “triple lock” on the state pension (so that it rose by inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever was highest), as well as the means-tested Pension Credit and universal benefits such as winter fuel payments, free bus passes and free TV licences.

Gore Vidal once characterised the US economic system as “free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich”. The Conservatives favoured capitalism for the young and socialism for the old. Median incomes for pensioners rose by 13 per cent from 2008 to 2016 but fell by 1.2 per cent for working households.

“I often get caricatured as a ‘generational warrior’,” Willetts says. “Every time I do an interview like this, I get a letter in copper­plate handwriting on Basildon Bond notepaper from an 81-year-old saying her life has been very tough, and she’s struggling to make ends meet, and what have I got against her? And I’ve got nothing against her.” But he maintains: “The balance of savings should be more fairly allocated between working-age families and pensioners.”

By far the greatest disparity between young and old is in property ownership. During the coalition years, housebuilding fell to its lowest level since the 1920s. Measures such as the “Help to Buy” scheme, which was aimed at first-time buyers, focused on subsidising demand rather than increasing supply. As the then chancellor, George Osborne, declared at a 2013 cabinet meeting: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up.”

The young, most of whom longed for house prices to fall, were far from happy. Whereas property ownership among the over-65s rose between 1997 and 2016, it fell among 16- to 34-year-olds, from 54 per cent to 34 per cent. Osborne’s favoured combination of monetary activism (ultra-low interest rates and quantitative easing) and fiscal conservatism (public spending cuts and tax rises) kept asset prices high and housebuilding rates low.

At the 2015 general election, the Conservatives won their first parliamentary majority since 1992 aided by homeowners, among whom the Tories enjoyed a 24-point lead. But they are now struggling to sell capitalism to a generation with no capital. The traditional transmission belt to Conservatism – property ownership – is broken for Generation Rent.

Willetts acknowledges his party’s shortcomings. “We do need to accept that there’s a very important role for the public sector in getting houses built. It can’t all be done by private housebuilders… On this, I am completely non-ideological.”

The problem, however, is not merely one of housing supply. As Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), tells me, “Remarkably – I always find this number astonishing – 10 per cent of people have two or more homes. And, of course, all those young people are living somewhere and, on the whole, they’re renting off older people.”

Johnson, however, cautions against intergenerational conflict: the divisions within generations remain greater than those between them. In recent decades, pensioner poverty has fallen significantly, but the gap between rich and poor pensioners has
simultaneously widened.

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David Cameron’s gifts to the elderly were not only fiscal. In January 2013, as older Tory voters defected to Ukip, Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership. The issue magnified the divide between Britain’s younger cosmopolitans and its older conservatives.

Young people had never known a Britain outside the EU. Free movement – the freedom to live and work in 27 other European countries – was as much a feature of their lives as the smartphone and Facebook.

But as immigration to the UK surged (net migration reached a record level of 336,000 in 2015), older voters in particular revolted against open borders. The 2017 British Social Attitudes survey later found that the UK had the largest generation gap of any European country over immigration (Sweden – which, like Britain, did not impose transitional controls on migration from eastern Europe in 2004 – was in second place). Nearly half of those aged between 18 and 29 believed that immigration had “a positive impact on the economy”, compared with just 29 per cent of those aged over 70.

Beth Jenkinson tells me of the “pride” that she felt in her generation the day after the EU referendum. “It was a reflection of our values and what we believe in: tolerance, being welcoming as a country. That’s where I see the big divide – the divide in
values.” At the 2017 election, Remainers took their revenge.

For the young, the Brexit vote intensified the sense of a world beyond their control. Here was a generation charged £9,000 a year for almost all university courses, regardless of their quality, with no guarantee of a graduate job at the end. This was a generation for whom saving for a deposit felt ever more futile after house prices rose to 7.6 times the average salary. (In November, the estate agent Strutt & Parker helpfully advised the young to stop buying sand­wiches and enjoy fewer nights out if they wanted to buy property in London.)

As their European friends spoke anxiously of their fears of being deported from Britain, the Leave vote felt to them like the final insult. Theresa May’s support for fox hunting and her abandonment of a full ban on the ivory trade in Britain could have been designed to repel the young (who in the general election turned out in larger numbers than at any election since 1992).

***

Labour, by contrast, courted the youth vote by pledging to abolish university tuition fees – a decision described by party strategists as their “big bazooka”. Jeremy Corbyn was that rarest of things: a politician whom the young trusted. His political and ideological consistency – exemplified by a photo of him being arrested in 1984 while protesting against South African apartheid – appealed to those who felt betrayed by the Lib Dems and New Labour. (James Schneider, who later became Corbyn’s head of strategic communications, left the Lib Dems in 2010 and joined Labour in 2015.)

Huda Elmi, 23, a member of Momentum’s national co-ordinating group, says: “Most young people are political. They are politicised. The issue has always been that their politicisation hasn’t been within party politics.” Corbyn, she adds, “shattered” the “perception of politics as being middle-class white men in suits in a Westminster bubble” by championing “the issues that people are fighting for in their own communities and in their own organising networks”.

For Corbyn’s supporters, his promise to abolish tuition fees was a recognition of higher education as a public good, rather than a private commodity. But others condemned the policy on the grounds of fairness. “Labour’s proposal is incredibly regressive,” David Willetts, who oversaw the introduction of £9,000 fees as universities minister, tells me. An IFS study found that the highest-earning graduates would benefit the most while the lowest-earning would benefit the least. Willetts warned that the estimated £11bn cost of ending fees would force the government to reimpose a cap on student numbers. “The marginal students that don’t get a place are the ones from less affluent backgrounds.”

The Conservatives have pledged to freeze fees at £9,250 (their level since 2017) and to increase the loan repayment threshold from £21,000 to £25,000. Thomas Tozer, 25, a policy researcher who graduated with £40,000 of student debt and pays a third of his income in rent in Greenwich, south-east London, dismissed this as “crumbs from the table”. “The young are not as naive or as easily misled as people assume,” he says. “The government cares more about its reputation and its image than genuinely helping young people.”

Labour’s manifesto vowed to shield the old as well as the young from austerity. Unlike Theresa May, Corbyn pledged to protect the triple lock on the state pension and all universal pensioner benefits. “There is this perception of us [Momentum] just being for the young, or all being middle class, hummus-eating hipsters,” says Elmi. “But you actually have a lot of retired pensioners who are Momentum volunteers, and that is solidarity in action.”

Willetts echoes this sentiment. “I am fundamentally an optimist… The polling work we’ve done shows that young people themselves care about the living standards of older people. And Granny does worry that her grandson can’t get started on the housing ladder.”

This may be too optimistic. The Brexit vote that caused Jenkinson such despair – “I couldn’t understand why that anger had to affect my life and my future” – was a symptom of a viscerally divided country. There is no reason to believe that Brexit will heal the divisions. The epic task of EU withdrawal – the nation’s most demanding post-1945 negotiation – has deprived the government of the capacity to solve the housing crisis facing the young or the social care crisis facing the old. A poorer and ever more polarised Britain is no country for young people or, indeed,  for old ones. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old