Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A war of the old against the young?

One of the most powerful emergent discourses in public policy is that of the war the old have waged against the young. They've sucked up index-linked pensions; surfed the wave of house-price rises and wage inflation; taken advantage of plentiful jobs in the 1960s and 1970s... Those baby boomers have a lot to answer for.

Two new things they've been accused of: paying down their mortgages when lower interest rates were supposed to get them spending (the last two years have seen mortgages cleared off personal balance sheets at an unheard-of rate); and allowing their pension funds to invest abroad. Apparently dastardly City traders have been investing funds in quick-growing India and Brazil, not in the UK where young people might take advantage of the extra jobs and growth

Surprised? Not really. Who thought that low interest rates would really lead to a big spending spree as house prices stagnated or went into reverse? Who thinks that pension funds should be invested in low-growth sectors of the world economy? No-one, really.

This brings me to the interesting thing about this new rhetoric of a 'clash of the ages'. It's always been there somewhere: witness the debates over old age pensions in 1911, when Labour-leaning unions took ill to the Liberals' proposals because they didn't help skilled men of 'actual working age'. Think of the debate over the idea of a National Insurance Fund after 1945, when Conservatives argued that 'pay as you go' was a bad idea, likely to bankrupt the country. Or consider the Thatcher Governments' effect on older working men, many of whom never worked again after losing their manufacturing jobs.

No-one said then 'ah, we've got a war of the young against the old here'.

Why? Because they had social class as their main framing device for understanding and imagining national life.

We could probably do with this again to some extent. Because when you hear thirtysomethings moaning about the citizens born in the 1940s and 1950s who've stolen their lives (and emigrating in large numbers, rather than sitting around chuntering) they probably don't mean those older people who live in poverty, unable adequately to heat their homes - some two million of them, according to the Office for National Statistics.

Let's bring back the word 'class'... Then we'd see these apparently inter-generational transfers for what they are, which is upper middle class property owners doing well and everyone else getting battered.

Not the whole story? Neither is 'age against youth'.