A recent spate of books bashing the 'boomers' the generation born between 1946 and the early 1960s sums up the view that blame for current economic and social ills can be placed squarely at their door, says Simon Wilson.
Over the last six months it's been open season on the cohort born in the years after 1945. David Willetts' The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children's Future and How To Give It Back, Francis Beckett's What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? and Neil Boorman's It's All Their Fault hit the shelves in quick succession. And now there's a new kid on the block, titled Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. In the crowded field of 'boomer-phobia', Jilted Generation claims a unique space: it is written by young people themselves, twenty-something (just) journalists Ed Howker and Shiv Malik.
How well off are the boomers?
The generation born during the post-war baby-boom (which lasted from 1946 until the early 1960s; the babies are now in their late-forties to mid-sixties) have had it easy, so the argument goes. They enjoyed a long economic expansion, free higher education or paid apprenticeships, secure working contracts and gold-plated final-salary pension schemes. Not to mention a stunning long-run housing boom, the effects of which will take decades to shake out. As a result, according to figures cited by Neil Boorman, boomers own 80% of the nation's wealth.
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When they started buying homes in the early 1970s, they paid £60,000 (in today's money; a fraction of that in nominal terms) for their first property. Today, a buyer needs an average of £160,000 6.5 times the average salary.
Why are boomers to blame?
Because they account for 70% of MPs and run the country's boardrooms, education and other civil and cultural institutions. In short, they are the richest and most powerful generation that has ever lived. Yet they leave a legacy of economic stagnation, a massive fiscal crisis, a collapsing welfare state, a culture of lifelong debt, a graduate unemployment crisis and unaffordable housing. That means young adults find it hard to start their lives, form and sustain relationships and settle down. As if to rub salt into the wounds, the well-off oldsters are now retiring, selling their houses for a massive profit and keeping the money to fund even glitzier retirements.
Is that a fair assessment?
The authors of Jilted Generation (whose ideas owe much to the sociologist Richard Sennett and his seminal book The Corrosion of Character) don't solely blame the boomers for all this. They blame 'society' more generally specifically the rise of individualism and market fundamentalism under Thatcher, deepened under Blair. That spawned dire effects for the housing market with the near-abolition of social housing from the 1980s. It's also responsible for a kind of institutionalised short-termism that they argue permeates British politics and policy-making. Nevertheless, they are passionately angry about the allegedly miserable prospects for anyone born after September 1979 the first generation to pay university tuition fees as a result of decisions taken by previous generations.
So what's the real problem?
Jilted Generation certainly makes a start when it comes to placing boomer-bashing in a wider social context. But many critics of the genre argue that the anti-boomer thesis misses the point: that this is not a generational issue but an issue of class and inequality. For example, development economist George Irvin points out (in a recent piece for The Guardian) that "a privileged minority of boomers may have lived high-on-the-hog, owned nice houses and even flirted with hippy hedonism in the 1970s, but most workers experienced years of stagnating wages and growing job insecurity". Real wages have lagged productivity; Britain's increasing wealth has gone disproportionately to the already-rich; and even today the median income is £22,000 a year. Half the population lives on less than this and that includes most pensioners of the boomer generation.
So are the boomers to blame?
The baby-boomers have benefited from enormous structural advantages and state largesse, but they have cynically pulled the ladder up after them.
Young adults graduating this summer leave university with an average debt of £17,500 the biggest ever. And 69 applicants chase every job twice as many as in the 1982 recession.
Thanks to the baby boomer-led housing bubble and credit bust, even those in a secure job will struggle to find affordable property.
This is not a generation issue but a class issue. Not all baby-boomers had it easy or will enjoy secure retirements. The ones that do are likely to help their children, further entrenching class differences and hindering social mobility.
Of young adults, 40% now attend university, compared to 4% in the 1960s. That's a radical change one generation had to be the unlucky first one to pay fees.
All generations blame the one before. And it's far too early to say that baby-boomers are refusing to hand on their wealth.
Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published Customers.com, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.
Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.
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