Where in the post-war world the battle lines were drawn across class and social divisions, intergenerational cleavages will cause the greatest clashes of the 21st century.
Some are already in evidence. The trebling of tuition fees is rightly condemned by students as a cynical ploy by the government to load the burden of reducing the deficit onto the younger generation. However, it passed because the age group it affected is not a big enough an electoral threat to cause politicians to stay awake at night.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum politicians of all colours leaped to condemn Osborne’s so-called “granny tax,” which gnawed into the pensions of older people. However, scant debate was had over the fact that current arrangements mean many wealthy pensioners receive large benefits that the younger generation can only dream of: free bus travel, free prescriptions, and free TV to list a few.
In the last issue of ‘Anticipations’, Angus Hanton of the Intergenerational Foundation said: “The current younger generation will probably be the first in modern history to have lower living standards.” Meanwhile, graduates will find the promise of a job, a home, and happiness held out to their university-educated parents no longer applies to them.
What can be done? It is impossible to mobilise the young against the old, because this is one political division where faction-fighting won’t work. A student will not be moved to denounce his parents and grandparents for getting it easy while he or she struggles to get by- the bonds of family are too strong for campaigns to pit generation against generation.
Instead, the left needs to lay the groundwork for a grand bargain between age groups. The future of a sustainable welfare state depends on people of all ages negotiating compromises. We must stop viewing certain demographic groups as protected from economic and social realities and accept there will have to be a give-and-take between generations to acheive a future fair for all.
Olaf Cramme, director of the Policy Network, spoke to the Global Youth Challenge Policy Commission and set out this idea in clear terms:
“Surely at the moment the old live at the expense of the young, and unless this is accepted there’s nothing we can do [to change it]. The next step will then be not to polarise [generations] further, but construct an generational compact where you change [the direction of] distributional power,”
One way to do this is to change society’s perception of what constitutes an ’investment.’ At present, too much emphasis is given to what Olaf calls ‘tangible assets,’ those investments that exist as capital and can boost the economy now. The left should mobilise to redress the balance between these and ‘intangible assets,’ namely the money pumped into education, training and skills that is spent now, and reaps dividends in the future.
As long as society feels it is better to cut investment to early years care, education, and training schemes like apprenticeships, then the gulf between the young and old generations will grow and grow.
The intergenerational challenge is not one to be taken lightly. It will require a huge political mobilisaiton across national borders and age boundaries. As Olaf says,
“I don’t think one country alone will succeed, it will be a collective effort. It’s almost too much for one country or one party to organise and break through a recognition by people that there is something wrong with the system, and that young people are falling behind.”
However, to refuse the challenge altogether would be to condemn the younger generation to a future it did not help create, and does not deserve.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog