Without radical action on housing and inequality, a bitter generation war looms

From pensions to pubs to vaccine passports, young people’s frustration with the “selfish boomers” is boiling over.

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Generation rent were already angry going into this pandemic, and it seems likely that they will become even angrier as we emerge out of it. The Office for National Statistics released unemployment figures last week showing that 88 per cent of job losses in the past year affected people aged 35 and under. Meanwhile house prices have continued to rise, leaving even more young people excluded from the property market, with the ratio of average house prices to earnings now around 8.4, in contrast to an average ratio of 4.8 between 1950 and 2000. Almost three quarters of millennials worry that they will never own their own homes – sadly, for a third of that generation, their fears will be realised. 

There was a pre-existing problem of intergenerational inequality in this country, and then all of a sudden a new and unexpected factor was added to the mix: a novel coronavirus that – unusually – is more fatal for older generations, with more than 90 per cent of victims aged 65 or older. This time last year, we were being told that a short, sharp lockdown would flatten the curve (or “squash the sombrero”, as the Prime Minister phrased it) and, back in March 2020, half of us thought that life would be back to normal within six months. 

[See also: Why building our own homes could solve the UK’s housing crisis]

Nevertheless, here we are, with businesses still closed, summer holidays still cancelled and, despite the success of the vaccine roll-out, society still facing the possibility of continued mask wearing and social distancing for years to come. 

Young people know by now that they’re not really at personal risk from the virus. Their initial caution lapsed long ago, and the London parks near me are now filled every weekend with groups of under-30s who, very obviously, don’t belong to the same households. In May 2020 it was reported that more than half of young adults were no longer following Covid rules, with reports of illegal parties and many in the age bracket continuing to visit partners who live elsewhere. “Selfish!” say senior police, politicians and commentators, but then that’s a word that young adults are perfectly happy to lob right back. 

Among my peer group of 20 and 30-somethings, a particular narrative about baby boomers is gaining momentum. The word “boomer” is pronounced with a particularly contemptuous emphasis on the plosive, and is frequently combined with some other negative characterisation of this supposedly selfish generation: boomer landlords hoard property, boomer Brexiteers have trashed the economy, boomers squat like dragons over their gold-plated pensions, boomers enjoyed free university tuition and then pulled up the drawbridge behind them. 

And now, boomers ask young people to sacrifice their futures for fear of a virus that doesn’t pose a fatal threat to them. 

[See also: How Covid-19 has sparked a youth unemployment crisis]

Like most populist narratives, this one is both somewhat true and also somewhat simplistic. On the issue of generational warfare and the housing crisis, for instance, the many causes are hard to place neatly into the political categories of left and right. On the supply side, we’ve seen a slump in housing construction made worse by "NIMYBYism" and overzealous planning restrictions, and the Thatcherite Right to Buy scheme has led to a dearth of social housing stock. At the same time, on the demand side, we’ve also seen a rise in net migration, a fall in the average household size, and more and more professional couples with hearty dual incomes pulled inexorably into the orbit of our expensive and dysfunctional capital. 

We are unusual among Western countries in having such a dominant capital city, and our housing crisis is, in fact, a crisis contained to London and the south-east. But while buying a property within a Red Wall constituency is far more achievable than buying one in the London commuting zone, the cost is living in a region hit harder by economic stagnation

Unsurprisingly, politicians are not queuing up to introduce any policy that would lead to a significant fall in house prices in the south-east, not when voter turnout is skewed so much by age and when so many homeowners are relying on the liquidation of their properties as a future source of retirement income. The housing crisis is not easy to fix, and nor is intergenerational inequality as a whole. 

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s Budget has not prevented a surge in unemployment – it just delayed it]

But at the same time, our current government shows little sign of taking the problem seriously, with the pension triple lock kept safe even as public sector pay is neglected and working-age benefits capped. 

Sometimes the more symbolic acts are just as damaging as the more substantive ones. The issue of vaccine passports, for instance, rubs salt into an already resentful wound. Millennials of my acquaintance are not at all keen on the idea of vaccinated boomers able to set off on cruises while the unvaccinated and unemployed young are forced to remain locked down. Similarly, barring most young people from visiting pubs by virtue of their vaccine status, even if only for a few months, would only increase the appeal of the anti-boomer narrative.  

Something radical is needed to turn the narrative around. The Social Market Foundation published a paper in July 2020 arguing for a different approach to paying for the costs of the pandemic, beyond general taxation rises and public service cuts. One proposed policy is to scrap both stamp duty and inheritance tax, instead introducing a new property capital gains tax that would collect revenue from the sale of properties that have increased substantially in value. James Kirkup, director of the SMF, highlights the issue of intergenerational fairness: 

“These reforms are bold, far-reaching and could be politically controversial: the older voters who own most British property are a powerful group. But the scale of the coronavirus crisis and the unprecedented outlook for the public finances mean that responsible politicians of all parties must be prepared to embrace new ideas and take bold action.”

When the alternative is a bitter generation war, such action may be the only solution. 

Louise Perry is a New Statesman contributing writer and a campaigner against sexual violence. 

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