Generation wars






Publication: Soundings
Author: Berry, Craig
Date published: December 1, 2011

Craig Berry and Rhiannon Freeland

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, Jilted Generation: How Britain Bankrupted Its Youth, Icon 2010

David Willets, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - and Why They Should Give It Back, Atlantic 2010

As the post-war baby boomers approach retirement, there has been an explosion of interest in the financial and economic circumstances of different age cohorts, and more generally the relationships between different generations within society. This intellectual enterprise is, of course, not distinct from the experience of financial crisis and recession; the generational turn offers a unique perspective on - and even a partial explanation for - the country's economic woes.

The theme of both Jilted Generation and The Pinch is that the baby-boom generation - born between 1945 and 1965 - benefited from a fairly unique set of historical circumstances, and rather than seeking to share their good fortune with their children's generation, they have pulled the ladder up. Yet their conclusions are reached from very different starting points. Both books document the myriad problems today's young people will encounter in trying to find jobs, start families, get onto the housing ladder, or even simply 'have a say'; but whereas Howker and Malik concentrate on associating the ascent of the baby boomers with a very recent valorisation of individualism and unfettered free markets, Willets instead explains the apparent intergenerational theft orchestrated by the boomers with reference to social structures that are many centuries or even millennia old. For Willets, it is precisely the size of the boomer cohort that is to blame, not their politics.

Jilted Generation's mission is to bust the myths surrounding the popular understanding of young people today. The reason that young people are struggling in the job market is not because of their inherent fecklessness but rather because of the drying up of opportunities. An examination of housing is the flagship contribution of Jilted Generation to the intergenerational relations debate, and it is hard to disagree with Howker and Malik's findings that the decline in construction, an increase in prices despite falling standards and sizes, the sale of public housing, and the end of tax relief for mortgage interest payments, have all combined to make buying a home a daunting and almost impossible prospect for many young people. This is exacerbated by the appalling state of the private rental market. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, however, is Howker and Malik's treatise on the 'postponement of adulthood', a thread which features throughout. It is not simply that young people struggle to buy a house, find employment and start saving; more importantly, these struggles delay their attainment of full adulthood. This is something that may affect their entire lives, and moreover, may have an impact on society in general rather than simply the individuals directly affected. The increasing costs and declining value of higher education - which has become perhaps the defining issue of youth politics - is of course an important feature oí Jilted Generation, but Howker and Malik are just as interested in the less privileged members of their generation, whose disadvantage has been compounded by an economy rigged in favour of the boomers.

Whereas Howker and Malik's inquiry invariably leads them to a left-wing critique of boomer politics, David Willets in contrast starts unambiguously from the right. He states boldly that baby boomers have failed to protect the interests of future generations, and indeed jeopardised future economic growth by failing to invest in infrastructure and control debt. One of the most interesting parts of The Pinch is a partial critique of 'discount rates' in economic theory, which encourage us to place little value in anything that may occur in a generations time. However, according to Willets, Britain has never had strong intergenerational ties, owing to the fact that our nuclear families have always been small. Instead of patronage, we have created and relied upon commercial activity for sustenance, and civil society for social support. As in all human communities, family is crucial to our livelihoods and the source of our most meaningful experiences and relationships, but nevertheless our politics and economy reflect a relatively weak social contract between generations. It is precisely for this reason that when a large cohort such as the baby boomers conies along, it has the power to restructure culture, the labour market and the architecture of the state in accordance with its own immediate interest. While Willets documents the results of this 'pinch' expertly, he offers little by way of solutions, beyond a moderate plea for better education and advice for young people (including a slightly incongruous endorsement of free schools). He laments the declining importance of institutions (such as the family, but also universities, civil society organisations, nationhood, etc) that were stores of intergenerational wisdom, but merely asks that politicians consider more carefully the interests of the future rather than simply appealing to their present-day constituencies.

The empirical material amassed in both books is highly impressive, and both are extremely well-written. Yet there remains a sense that their generational approach obscures more than it explains. For Willets this is almost intentional. His main goal is to demonstrate that generational relations matter; in fact he argues that the intergenerational nature of human life has for too long been an under-appreciated determinant of fiscal and economic outcomes. In Jilted Generation, the focus on generational relations leads to an under-recognition of the class structure of the baby boomer cohort, and of the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s that brought poverty and hardship to so many of them during their working lives. It also leads Howker and Malik down some very awkward narrative paths, such as the suggestion that only funded pension schemes are intergenerationaliy fair, despite the profound consequences for pensioner poverty that could result when today's young people retire if the UK pensions system adopted a fully-funded model. Willets actually recognises the threat posed by the 'defined contribution' pensions that many young people will have to settle for, and in fact is more prepared than Howker and Malik to acknowledge intergenerational transfers from wealthy boomer parents as the genesis of inequality among today's young people - although he is clearly not uncomfortable with such outcomes, instead recognising them as a natural part of life.

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