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Inequality and the Generation Gap. More Than Meets the Eye?

Read any newspaper or magazine which focuses on economics and politics over the last few days and you will have almost certainly stumbled upon the idea of “intergenerational inequality”. The basic argument goes; for most of modern history in Britain every successive generation has enjoyed improved living standards compared to the generation that came before it. However, thanks to the economic crisis of the past decade there is a real chance that this will not hold true for the generation born between 1981-2000 (the so-called “millennials”). A basic tenant of our social contract and a fundamental aspiration for every parent, that our children should have a better life than we did, has been thrown into doubt in a way that is truly unprecedented.

Is that fear justified? I’d argue “Yes, up to a point”. It’s true that the figures don’t make for pretty reading. According to the Resolution Foundation, older millennials (around 30-35 years old) are the first workers to earn less than those born five years before them, and many of them entered work before the Great Recession. At the same time, it’s been reported recently that pensioner household incomes have overtaken those of working age equivalents for the first time.

Clearly something needs to be done, but the danger here is that we start seeing intergenerational inequality as a zero sum game, where making things better for young people can only be done by taking away from older people. Will, for example, will following the advice of some in abolishing the “triple lock” on pensions (where pension increase per year by the higher of the growth in average earnings, the Consumer Price Index or 2.5%) create good-quality, high-paid jobs for young people by itself? I’d argue not. Reducing inequality must come from lifting people up to the same level, not dragging them down.

I’d go further and say that treating entire generations like some vast amorphous block does nobody any favours. Take two young people born on the same day; one living in the countryside and another living in an inner city. Do they really have any similarities beyond the fact that they share a birthday? Do we miss any potential inequality in income and opportunity between these two because we’re more focused on how they’re doing compared to their parents? A few facts and figures can show what this means in practice. While some pensioners may be earning more than those in work, there are still 1.6 million pensioners (14% of the total pensioner population) living below the poverty line after housing costs. A higher income young person at age 20 has a greater income than a poorer member of their parent’s generation at any age.

We must resolve ourselves to fighting inequality wherever we see it, not setting up one generation against another. Fortunately, there are more than a few ways in which we can do this. Building more and better housing will benefit both young people looking to settle down and older people looking to move or downsize in retirement. Protecting pensions gives security not just to people on the verge of retirement age, but to young people who want to know that pensions will still be there for them decades from now. This is more than a dry debate about economics. If we accept that inequality both between and within generations is one of the gravest issues we face (and I believe it is) then how we deal with it says a lot about what kind of country we are.

I’ve had enough of the policies of scapegoating, divide-and-rule and “us versus them”. We need to be far more ambitious and far more progressive before we can even begin to put things right.

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