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Britain’s Baby Boomers – Nation Wreckers?

June 28, 2013

It seems to be open season on the British baby boomer generation. According to a host of commentators, we’re spendthrifts, debt junkies – economic vampires feeding on the futures of our children, stunting their development, creating a dependent generation and bequeathing a financial black hole that will prevent them from living the kind of life that we have come to take for granted.

We, the blood-sucking baby boomers and our political leaders, are responsible for the feckless millions living on benefits, watching Sky on their 40-inch TVs, going on foreign holidays and guzzling fast food, all at the expense of the taxpayer. It’s our fault that school leavers are incapable of writing a CV or stringing a few coherent thoughts together at a job interview. We are the reason that 25-year-olds can’t get 100% mortgages on their first homes.

Well maybe. But we’re also the generation that includes millions who can’t afford to retire. Who grew up without the cushion of employment rights enshrined in the European Union Social Chapter. Who didn’t expect as of right to own a property and a car, or go to university.  At a time when nuclear war was at the back of everybody’s mind, on occasions we were never even sure whether we would wake up in the morning.

And we’re the generation whose scientists created the web, e-business, smart phones and MRI scanners. Whose legislators and business leaders enabled cheap air travel. Whose musicians encouraged us to give peace a chance.

As my peers move towards retirement in increasing numbers, the line between work and retirement is fuzzier than ever. In the UK, now that few people in the private sector can afford to retire at 60 or 65, a record number of people are working beyond retirement age. Blame the baby boomers again. People whose pensions have taken a knock since 2008, who have to keep working to achieve the income they thought they would have at retirement – the greedy generation blocking jobs that young people should be filling, the story goes.

The line is fuzzy for another reason. Many people no longer believe in the plunge over the cliff of retirement. They don’t want to stop working. They don’t accept the convention that you are no longer socially and economically useful past the age of 65, so you might as well spend your declining years working the allotment or hacking away on the golf course.

But In the early 20th century, when the concept of retirement became enshrined in the legal systems of most Western countries, retirees couldn’t expect more than a handful of years before they fell off the perch. These days many people will still have a quarter of their lives ahead of them at 65. So should they spend their remaining years inventing things to do to stave off the boredom of slow decline?

Today we have politicians (too many to mention, especially within authoritarian systems), lawyers, accountants, actors and musicians who think nothing of carrying on well into their eighties. And nobody’s asking why octogenarian composers like Kurt Masur, theatre directors like Peter Brook and writers like PD James don’t shuffle off into a non-productive departure lounge. And the same goes for a pensioner who chooses to work for Asda into his eighties.

And why should they? As long as you have something to offer, does it matter if you’re 16 or 86?

It matters very much according to a growing chorus of opinion that blames my generation for all the ills currently facing the UK.

One such critic is Ed Howker, the co-author of a book called Jilted Generation. A couple of weeks ago we wrote in the UK Sunday Times that:

“The crisis facing the young should chill the old. Without jobs, kids cannot grow up, cannot realise their hopes; they will be unable to pay the taxes to keep the state solvent. Yet we never seem to talk about all this.

Instead, we seem trapped in an endless conversation about the baby-boomers. Generations do not have political agency. Boomers are not meeting in secret, plotting their children’s downfall.

On the contrary, they are wondering why their brilliant, hard-working, well-educated kids are trapped in workfare schemes and unpaid internships, cannot afford to rent or to buy a house and cannot grow up.

What is wrong is obvious: politicians, the state and our public debate have ignored the needs of new generations for decades. They have not invested in new workers and built new homes; they encouraged the racking-up of debts without care for the consequences.

Generational inequity will not foment a revolt; it will force the young to become more dependent on the old.

Insecure, impecunious, ignored — it is young people who are suffering. I am sorry to break this to the boomers: it is not all about you.”

No, it’s not all about us. And it’s not all about his generation. In case Howker didn’t notice, over the past five years we have been in a period of economic downturn not experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s. My generation may be part of the story, but we are not the story itself. Globalisation, the sociopathic behaviour of the banks and the short-term thinking of politicians all have much deeper roots.

He blames politicians for decisions that favour the old against the young. I would agree with him to an extent, but I don’t accept that successive governments have failed to invest in the young – billions of pounds have been spent over the past decade on employment creation schemes and in making a university education accessible to a wider slice of the population. The problem has been that many of these policies have been misguided, and failed to produce the desired results.

The underlying cause of the current crisis may be unsustainable debt, but let’s return for a moment to the world before Howker was born, and compare it with the world he is writing about today.

In 1968, when I left school, only 10% of school leavers went on to study at university. Foreign holidays were luxury items restricted to a minority of people who could afford them. There was no internet, no broadband, no smart phones, no e-business and no social media. Britain was in the middle of a severe financial crisis. The year before, the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson was forced to devalue the pound. At the time, this was seen as a national humiliation.

The seventies were even worse. Exchange controls limiting the amount of money one could take abroad. Rampant inflation, industrial confrontation and mass unemployment sparked by the oil shock of 1973. I lived through the three-day week and the power cuts during the miners’ strike. For me, there was no Bank of Mum and Dad, and the idea that I should buy a house, or even want to, was out of the question. Prospects for the baby boom generation in the sixties and seventies were very grim indeed.

I spent the eighties in Saudi Arabia, and it was only for that reason that I was able to buy my first property, at the age of 32. I missed out on the Thatcher years, financial deregulation and money for nothing from the privatisation boom. When I got back to the UK, the thing that most surprised me was the cascade of mail offering me cheap finance.

Fast forward to the nineties and noughties, the era of cheap credit, interest-only mortgages and stock market booms – and busts. Many of the things we learned to take for granted are still with us today – cheap foreign holidays, affordable telecommunications and computers, cheap food and clothes, a generous welfare state.

In 2013 50% of our school leavers go to university. We can visit more or less any country in the world. We can work anywhere in the European Union – assuming we can find the opportunity. We have an unprecedented access to ideas, people and knowledge through the web. Yes, as Howker says, it’s harder to get on to the property ladder, and unemployment is higher than in recent times.  But in the UK, the jobless figures are nowhere near the crippling levels currently experienced in Greece and Spain.

We may be 3% worse off in GDP terms as a nation than we were in 2008, but we are still far better off financially than we were when the baby boom generation was starting out.

If there’s a major difference in attitude between the generations, it’s the sense of entitlement that seems to have taken a grip today. When I was growing up, I didn’t have the sense that the state owed anything to me.  These days there seems to be a a widespread feeling that we all have a right to own property, to have a job that pays better every year. We expect our living standards always to improve, never to decline.

Howker has a point when he worries about how future generations will cope with the debt built up over the past twenty years. He fears that the current generation is becoming incapable of standing on its own feet – that they are relying increasingly on hand-outs from their parents.

Perhaps he should remember that the concept of generational independence is far from the norm in many parts of the world where extended families support each other way beyond childhood. In the Middle East, for example, unemployment does not necessarily mean being forced to live on the street – families take the strain of additional mouths to feed as a cultural and social imperative. Is it such a terrible thing that we should move in that direction in the West? In my case the Bank of Mum and Dad has been doing business for the lifetime of our kids – our oldest is now 27 – and we see no prospect of it shutting down any time soon.

Yes, you could argue that our kids are relatively privileged, and that there are many families so fractured that to live at home on the dole is an unacceptable option even in the short term. Yet the fact remains that our welfare system at least takes care of basic physical needs, even if it doesn’t have an answer for the spiritual emptiness felt by the long-term unemployed.

He also has a point when he implies that we are not equipping our kids with the skills they need to become independent. But we are not failing to provide them with a traditional education – the three Rs. The failing lies in the lack of life skills, such as communications, and in our not imbuing the sense that our destiny is in our hands, that we have to go out and grab opportunities instead of waiting for them to come our way.

There are still jobs to be had. Many of them may not seem attractive to the legions of new graduates who have come to expect a ready-made career by virtue of their freshly-minted degree certificates. Is it so inequitable that we should exchange our time unpaid for a limited period in return for experience? And if graduates have to work at McDonalds while waiting for their first “proper job”, are they not aware that in the process they are gaining life skills that will help them in their subsequent career?

Turning to property, if a person can’t own their home before they are 30, is it a disaster? Have we forgotten that there are many countries in the EU that have a far lower percentage of property owners than the UK? How is it that many families in France and Germany spend their lives in rented property, yet do not have the sense that they are socially disadvantaged?

This is not intended to be a “you’ve never had it so good” rant from a complacent representative of the fortunate generation. Nor am I a social conservative who believes that the answer to all our ills is to “get on your bike”. In fact I’ve always voted for political parties that have compassionate and socially inclusive agendas. I do accept that my generation has bequeathed big challenges to its successors. But I can’t accept that these challenges are any greater than those facing my fellow baby boomers, or the previous generation that went through World War 2.

It’s part of the human condition that we can’t resist pointing the finger at our elders, and holding them responsible for our own ills. If it were not so we would be less motivated to play our own part in making the world – or at least our own little part of it – a better place.

Today’s “brilliant, well -educated and hardworking kids”, as Ed Howker refers to them, are not impotent victims. They have the power and the ability to make a difference, even if they need more of a helping hand from my generation to get there. They are not disenfranchised, and they have as much power to organise themselves politically and socially as previous generations – you could argue more so given the availability of the social networks to facilitate horizontal communications. Perhaps what they are lacking is the will and the know-how.

If we want to help today’s youth, it’s time we started to think of some new solutions, both short term and long term.

In the long term, we should be looking to redefine the meaning of progress. The message sent out by educators and politicians that we should expect a continuous upward curve in health, wealth and happiness is a ludicrous fallacy. Every age has its challenges and setbacks, as well as positive achievements. The teaching of history should emphasise that point. We should not be so quick to blame others for our own misfortunes. Equally we should not destroy our confidence by blaming ourselves.

When the population of Europe was decimated by the Black Death in 1348, the pestilence was seen as an act of God, sent to punish us for our sins. Though there are still many who believe in divine agency, be that agency God or Gaia, we could also argue that many of the setbacks that face us are the result of our fallibility – unintended consequences of well-meaning actions. Climate change as the result of industrial and social development. Drug-resistant disease as the result of over-prescription of antibiotics. Pension deficiencies as the result of people living longer.

The people of Syria need no reminding that progress is a fragile thing, not to be taken for granted. Perhaps we in the West need to accept that fragility, and be more prepared emotionally as well as physically for the lean years.

In the short term, we need to marry the needs of an aging population to extend its working life – and sense of purpose – with the needs of young people to acquire useful skills and experience. Degrees and other qualifications are not the currency for career progression that they once were. People need experience, knowledge and wisdom. Is it impossible to devise a system of tax breaks and financial incentives to make it worthwhile for those in the retirement zone – for these days it’s a zone rather than a fixed cut-off date – to pass on their knowledge by teaching, mentoring or even funding the development of young people?

Life skills programs such as the one set up by Barclays Bank will definitely help to make the young more employable by filling the gap between academic education and the skills needed to be an effective employee. But no single entity can meet the need. Parents, schools, universities and employers should play their part. And government can set the agenda with changes to national curricula and financial incentives.

Yesterday I passed through central London on my way to a meeting. It was a mild day, and the city was thronged with tourists. The flags were out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation. The pubs were overflowing with customers, and the streets were full of shoppers and office workers. On the same day we learned that we had avoided a double-dip recession in the winter of 2011-2012, an upward revision of previous more gloomy statistics.

Central London is not the same as the deserted coalfields of the Welsh valleys and the sink estates in Manchester and Nottingham. Yet the fact that millions come to Britain as tourists, and that we are a prime destination for work-seekers from other EU countries, is surely evidence that we are our own worst critics. As always, the media feeds on bad news, which in turn accelerates the spiral of gloom that seems of have descended upon us.

As the convent nuns used to say to their pupils who refused to eat their lunches, we should “think of the starving millions”. Yes, we’re in a difficult period, but difficulty is relative. And I refuse to accept that my children’s generation is incapable of dealing with the challenges they have inherited.

Allowing, of course, for the fact that stuff happens.

4 Comments
  1. To be fair, since 1990 the Baby Boomers have ruled the halls of power in every part of society for twenty years, and their legacy is a challenging mess for future generations. My generation, “X”, who have just started coming into power, have so far been incompetent and naive.

    The blame game is easy, but everyone has a stake in the present and future of the world, our choices and actions will determine if humanity lives or dies.

    • Thanks for the comment Alex. Speaking as someone who have never been close to the halls of power, I would say that every generation screws up in one way or another. As you rightly point out, what matters is what we do now – together. S

  2. Andrew Morton permalink

    I hope you’re right that the current younger generation has the ability to put things right. Certainly something will have to happen if we are to avoid the creeping impoverishment of a new generation. One response might be a severe lurch to the left following the kind of mass protests we have seen in North Africa The Middle East and southern Europe, but the problem with this kind of response is that it shows a naively idealsitic grasp of the forces that are actually at work. Reform of social structures in the West will necessitate a radical common-sense rethink of current economic dogma and I see no evidence that anyone is capable of doing this, or willing to undertake it.

    • I’m not sure it’s just economic dogma, Andy. I think it’s attitude and culture as well. They are much harder to change. The lurch to the left has already happened in France, where Hollande’s brief moment of popularity has evaporated. Whether any political party is prepared to take serious action depends on the perception of the gravity of the situation. Thus far, we’re not in meltdown. Another stock market crash combined with a banking crisis, and we might be. We’ll see what happens in that event. S

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