Inter-generational equality

The angry unemployed graduates were right: todays youth have been thoroughly shafted by the baby-boomers. It’s taken me a long time to accept that. I remember reading bloggers like Laurie Penny, sharing the rage but disagreeing with the diagnosis:

After the crash of 2008, Generation Y realised with a rush of horror that no matter how good we were or how relentlessly we hammered our minds and bodies into the grooves laid out for us by our parents, our teachers and a culture of mandatory capitalist self-fashioning, everything was definitely not going to be fine. Instead, we are going to spend our lives paying for the excesses of our parents, who have bequeathed us a broken economy, a stagnant job market and a planet that’s increasingly on fire.

Yes, I thought, you were promised a mirage. Anybody who goes through childhood believing what they are told — “work hard, pass your exams, and the world is your oyster” — is lined up for a rough awakening. Your parents lied to you — but, mostly, they lied because they believed. That doesn’t mean they had it better themselves.

Except, it turns out, they did. And they continue to — the old in Britain are wealthier, relative to the young, than they have been in a very long time. According to the FT:

the living standards of Britons in their 20s have been overtaken by those of their 60-something grandparents for the first time…
The data, which underpins government publications on living standards, takes no account of housing costs or wealth. Had it done so the results would have been even more dramatic, showing median living standards of people in their 20s have now slipped below those of people in their 70s and 80s.

If the figures show it, so does the human reality. My struggling twenty-something friends encounter from their parents a kind of bewilderment. The older generation, often sympathetic, nonetheless rarely comprehend the living conditions of their descendents. There’s a lingering assumption that jobs are out there somewhere, that they will provide a livable income, that housing is a matter of choice rather than desperation.

For all that, I remain very suspicious of the narrative of inter-generational competition. The inequalities within an age group are far, far higher than those between one generation and the next. Class, race, even gender are far greater inequalities. And much of the noise comes from a small segment of the population: the frustrated children of the salariat, being denied entry to a shrinking class. Still, the facts are there: the youth are getting it in the neck.

1 reply on “Inter-generational equality”

“The inequalities within an age group are far, far higher than those
between one generation and the next. Class, race, even gender are far
greater inequalities.”

I agree. But I think there’s a key difference with inter-generational inequality: as a group, the richer generation is *responsible* for the economic and political changes that has disadvantaged the poorer generation; while the political power to reverse those changes – indeed, political power in general – is also weighted incontestably in their hands, both directly as members of the political class and indirectly as a numerically larger voting block in an ageing population. I can’t think of another set of inequalities (in the UK) where this is so comprehensively the case?

This is why I find it so incomprehensible for lobby groups like Saga to describe the budget as “an outrageous assault on decent middle-class pensioners”. I can’t think of a single interest-group that shows a more staggering sense of entitlement and lack of self-awareness. With the government shitting on students, secondary school students, young peoples’ housing benefits, childcare…a group of people who have had jobs for life, own their own homes, and have enjoyed unprecedented benefits from a welfare state their peers have now dismantled, are arguing that they should also be exempted from having their income taxed like everyone else.

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