Leader: We must listen to much maligned millennials – not just pay them off with a lump sum

Society’s deep-rooted structural issues cannot simply be addressed with a single payment of £10,000 at 25.

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Of all the divides in British politics, one of the most contentious is that between the generations. On 8 May, a report by the London-based Resolution Foundation think tank exposed the economic gulf between millennials – the generation born between 1981 and 2000 – and older Britons.

Millennials own less property than older generations did at the same age (home ownership among young adults fell from 54 per cent to 34 per cent between 1997 and 2016), face university tuition fees of £9,250 a year and spend 15 per cent less than 55- to 64-year-olds. As we have written before, Britain’s young are not the avocado-loving, binge-drinking spendthrifts portrayed in the popular press: around a fifth are teetotal, and only 23 per cent of those under 25 smoke. These “new young fogeys” are, by and large, a hard-working, frugal and well-behaved generation. The huge increases in house prices over the past four decades have led to great wealth being accumulated by lucky homeowners, but today’s renters struggle to get on the property ladder.

The economic division between the young fogeys and their parents and grandparents is accompanied by a political gulf. As many as 62 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted in last June’s election did so for Labour, while only 25 per cent of the over-65s did the same. For the Conservatives, the reverse was true: as their own ministers ruefully acknowledge, it is difficult to sell capitalism to a generation without capital.

Is such a division desirable, or even sustainable? The Resolution Foundation’s report suggests not. The research directors, David Willetts, the former Conservative minister, and senior business leaders such as Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, invoked the philosopher Edmund Burke’s notion of a contract between the generations: an ideal now rarely espoused in our polarised political era. The report proposed radical solutions to redress the balance: most notably a £10,000 “citizens’ inheritance” – a lump sum payable to all on their 25th birthday. The Resolution Foundation report also proposed a dramatic reduction in the threshold for paying inheritance tax, and higher taxes on rich working pensioners.

At 62 and 57 respectively, Mr Willetts and Ms Fairbairn are hardly natural cheerleaders for millennials. However, their intervention is important: the voices of the young are too often ignored – not least because they vote less reliably than the old. The report is right to call for “a fair deal across the generations” and to warn of the unresolved issue of the spiralling cost of health and social care for all of us.

Timely though the intervention may be, the narrative of an intergenerational culture war must not be allowed to obscure an enduring and inconvenient truth: that the divisions within generations remain greater than those between them. A significant reduction in pensioner poverty in recent decades, for instance, has been accompanied by a widening of the gap between rich and poor pensioners. For all the talk of a great realignment, division by class is still the defining injustice in British society. Nor would the report’s proposed redistributive mechanism prove a panacea: deep-rooted structural issues cannot simply be addressed with a single payment at 25.

Nonetheless, the study is welcome. It is the sort of serious, measured response to intergenerational inequality that has been absent in the debate. It is time, as the Resolution Foundation suggests, that the state rediscovered the Burkean ideal – and treated millennials with wisdom and fairness. 

A man without qualities

Should one feel pity for Boris Johnson, the buffoonish Foreign Secretary who was despatched to Washington, DC on a forlorn mission to persuade Donald Trump of the merits of the nuclear deal with Iran? To make his case, Mr Johnson had to resort to an appearance on the president’s favourite television show, Fox & Friends, as well as publishing an opinion piece in the New York Times – which no doubt Mr Trump dismissed as fake news.

Any such impulse should be restrained, however. Mr Johnson is an unreliable and treacherous colleague, as he demonstrated once again by giving a newspaper interview timed explicitly to undermine the Prime Minister’s fraught and faltering Brexit negotiations. The great Austrian novelist Robert Musil had a phrase for one such as Boris Johnson: “a man without qualities”. And Mr Trump ignored him

This article appears in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran