Generation GAP

“It would be foolish to think of arguing that there is no problem looming for coming generations; what I would argue is that somehow the baby – boomers (of which I am one) are somehow at fault.”
                — Radiowonk, @13

This comment was submitted to the discussion on Stephanie Flanders’ most recent analysis of Osbourne’s budget policies. It’s an interesting article on generational economics, following one in which she examined the relative benefits of the boom to the relative costs of the bust from a gender perspective.

Addressing the main argument, briefly; about the only thing I would quibble with is the unqualified use of the term ‘baby-boomers’. The Baby Boomers were born between ’46 and ’64 in America and are defined economically and culturally by their hugely increased access to college education across class, gender and (ultimately) race. They are also marked, one might say scarred, as a generation by something else; Vietnam.

The picture is a bit less clearly demarcated over here. To begin with, access to a middle-class education becomes a national reality in the 80s rather than in the 60s. The same statement applies to the Falklands. But there definitely is a group of cohorts which have, like the ‘classic’ American Baby Boomers, benefited disproportionately in both economic and political power. The analysis of economic imbalance that Stephanie lays out here applies to the cohorts born between ’46 and ’74, a generation and a half, the ‘half’ of which would absolutely reject the idea that an article criticising the Baby Boomers was about them.

Younger and angrier writers than me tend to sound very critical of an entire generation when they talk about these injustices. Blaming people has some emotional utility but it’s not good politics, or joined-up thinking. One cannot accuse our predecessors of having stolen the world deliberately; they were children when adults took the decisions which handed them the keys to the kingdom.

They just got lucky. That really is it. And it’s worth remembering how many of them didn’t get lucky at all. The first two cohorts of this generation were trying to feed children through the Winter of Discontent. For black men in this generation, the whites are the enemy and the police are their enforcers. Women in this generation are the most likely to accept domestic violence as normal, because of how violent their fathers were. For children of this generation, when they were teenagers, they were 75% more likely to die by violence before they were 20 than their own children are. They were more than twice as likely to commit serious violence and more than three times as likely to commit arson as teenagers, than the hoodies of today. They lived in a rough world where information was hard to come by and money didn’t stretch well.

And yet. And yet; while local economic factors such as the pits mining out change the picture, mostly in the north, for the country as a whole these were the first generation who could legitimately expect to own property. That was brand new; until after WWII most Britons were born and died knowing they would never own land. While there have been four staggering recessions during the lives of this generation, they were only in the workforce for two of them, and constitute the most financially secure generation and a half ever due to their massively disproportionate ownership of British housing. This is the generation who were at the height of their career potential when the rise of the Tiger economies coupled with the long-awaited arrival of North Sea oil and gas blew open the doors of upward mobility in the 80s. These cohorts were the ones that received, and still own, the huge redistribution of wealth that Thatcher’s sale of council property created.

“What you have omitted from this discussion is the massive transfer of wealth which takes place as younger generations either live at home for much longer, subsidized by their parents, or when they inherit assets, such as houses.”
                — terrypaineismyhero, @8

A lot of the responses in the comment thread focus on this idea. I’m not surprised; it’s one of the better propaganda coups of the last 60 years. Anyone who wasn’t in a position to be on the property ladder during Thatcher’s redistribution of social housing got screwed. The 90s buy-to-let boom combined with the remarkable lack of new council houses built since 1986 compared with the number built per year during the previous thirty years meant that we will never again see house ownership being the norm; not without an equally radical (enforced!) redistribution of assets.

The argument put forward by terrypaineismyhero lies in the assumption that the majority of these houses will be inherited. They won’t.

If you’re an old woman whose husband has died and you’re living in a 5 bedroom house, what do you typically do? Sell it, move to a smaller house, live comfortably till you die. Many old couples will do this together well before either die. How often since 1995 have their children been able to afford to buy the house? These houses aren’t inherited, the assets are realised to provide the thirty-year retirement that is now expected as by right.

Some people are inheriting houses, I have no doubt of that. But it’s no-one I know, and since the collapse of pension schemes that made so many news stories in the 90s, and since the huge shift in the market due to buy-to-let from owner-occupier to professional landlords, most of the housing assets that were redistributed to the six cohorts we’re discussing are staying with them.

And to finish, I will return to Radiowonk.

“The vast majority of us lived and worked in the world as it was, neither having nor seeking any influence about the rules by which we had to live beyond putting a cross on a bit of paper every now and then.”

Yes, this generation got lucky in several ways, but the most significant was being born in a stable and functional democracy.

The social attitudes of these six cohorts were ossified prior to the Internet opening up the mental terrain of the West. As a result, they are a generation inclined to think and talk like Gillian Duffy or like Jeremy Clarkson, depending on class and education level. They have identical economic interests, and identical economic and social expectations. They grew up in the brief era when the NHS was big enough and the population small enough. And every election for the last forty years has been dominated by the narrative constructs of these six cohorts.

The single greatest fortune of the baby boomers is that they outnumber everyone else and always have. They got to the point where they could out-vote their parents’ generation very young, because there was lots of them and because their parents’ generation had been winnowed by WWII. As a result, the agenda of British politics became driven by their opinions, desires and aspirations some time between 1965 and 1970 and continues to be owned by them to this day. That’s more or less exactly the period of autocratic, majority government discussed in my last series.

You can’t blame the Boomers for their luck in when they were born. But the reins of power passed into their hands long enough ago that you can blame them for their actions since. Contrary to Radiowonk’s later comments, they did engineer our current level of debt; they have been the cabinet since the mid-80s. They did retire early with the expectation that they’d paid enough taxes, thank you, and deserved to retire from an office job at the age set for mill-workers in 19th century England. They could afford it. No-one in my generation even thinks they’re going to own their own home, let alone their parents’.

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