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Politicians have jilted a generation – it’s wrong to say that young people have never had it so good

28 April 2014

Is there something outrageous about Britain’s younger generations complaining that society is failing them? That’s the question posed by the title of a forthcoming Spectator debate, but I get the impression that some in this magazine’s stable already have an answer.

In 2011, one writer, senior in both senses, decried chippy youngsters as selling ‘the politics of envy’. Another – the editor – called those who rabbit on about youth unemployment, housing problems and tuition fees ‘generational jihadists’. In 2010, I co-wrote a book called Jilted Generation: How Britain has bankrupted its youth, so I guess that Fraser Nelson was talking about me. I have been called worse names – but not as wittily. How nice it is to make trouble.

I’ll be doing it again at the June debate. First, I will argue that both Labour and the Coalition governments have sneakily borrowed against the future earnings of the young to swell their coffers and keep taxes lower today.

Examples abound: tuition fee reforms, as I predicted in 2010, weigh down students with personal debts at the start of their lives while offering little long-term benefit to the public finances; Gordon Brown’s PFI investments have loaded the exchequer with decades of costly contracts in order to keep spending off the balance sheet; long-term public sector pensions liabilities are unfunded; revenue from Right to Buy has been spent on tax breaks; and gold reserves sold. There is an almost innumerable list of debts racked-up not during war but through peacetime profligacy. The effect is singular: future generations’ opportunity to shape their own futures is being curtailed because their taxes will be higher.

Second, I will accuse recent governments of cynically stoking the housing market. This may improve their electoral chances by making people feel richer, increase the value of their own expenses-funded London homes and raise the value of some of those publicly-owned banks, but it spells calamity for the next generation. And it may be driving their parents to distraction too.

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At the top of the market, the children of the wealthy are asking their parents for hundreds of thousands in mortgage down-payments that they could never save themselves, hurting both generations. Those from less affluent backgrounds are acquiring state-sponsored sub-prime mortgages which, if they go south, will cause a crash. Further down the income scale, millions more can’t afford to buy homes and are paying most of their income to buy-to-let speculators offering short-hold tenancies. Hundreds of thousands of young adults are attempting to raise families in cramped conditions, or else delaying marriage and childbirth far beyond previous generations.

Housing pressure is also keeping the poor in their place. More than 3.3 million people aged 20-34 are living with their parents. These young adults are caught in a vicious cycle: as secure work becomes scarce, they are unable to afford rent so cannot move to areas with jobs. Their parents, meanwhile, have to wait ever longer for their children to fly the nest.

Finally, I object to the manner in which governments spend money, condescendingly offering financial inducement to Britain’s numerous politically-active older generations to buy their votes. So state benefits have been cut for the poorest in our society, but a whole series of bumper allowances are still being paid to the wealthy elderly in addition to the state pension.

Knocking winter fuel payments to millionaire pensioners is just another example, some say, of the ‘politics of envy’. But the age of recipients cannot be the best measure for assessing their tax liabilities, access to services or state benefits. In any case, these inducements aren’t working which is why older voters are deserting the mainstream parties in droves.

Our politicians can only get away with their quick-fixes while we don’t question their long-term effects. But voters have started to cotton on, which may be one reason why James Forsyth detects an air of pessimism in Britain.

The counterargument, of course, is that young people have brought it on themselves; that something has gone horribly wrong with parenting; that a new generation ‘lacks grit’. Iain Duncan-Smith, even warned of an ‘X-factor generation’, ‘sitting at home, waiting to become TV stars’. But youth unemployment in Britain is still higher now than when he assumed office.

And that’s the point: the young may not be working but neither, apparently, are Duncan Smith’s policies. Still, it’s simpler to condescend to young people than to address their mounting problems.

The motion is: ‘Stop Whining Young People, You’ve Never Had It So Good’. I beg to oppose it.

The next Spectator debate: ‘Stop whining young people, you’ve never had it so good’ will feature Ed Howker, Paul Flatters, Katie Morley and Ruth Porter going head-to-head on 17 June. Click here to book tickets.

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Show comments
  • Tom Tom

    I read the book, interesting. Certainly valid points, though previous generations had less……I am still amazed how little people had in a material sense in the 1970s and now the unemployable live better than a full-time worker in 1977 – miracle of debt-financed consumerism I suppose.

    Youth today has more of some things and far less of others – I guess you trade something each generation – consumer trinkets + mass education versus free education for a gifted minority

    • La Fold

      Miracle of a welfare state that pays people not to work compunded by a minium wage that leaves many of those who have left school with the reading age of that worse than an 11 year old unemployable and dependent on state handouts.

  • Tony_E

    The law of demographics has spoken for years. The large Baby Boomer generation was a big voting block – when they were fairly young, older politicians chased their vote. When they were older and more and more of them were in positions of power, they made the rules to suit themselves.

    Unfortunately, it’s one of the flaws in a democracy. But like Churchill said, it’s the least worst of the alternatives.

    • post_x_it

      As the baby boomers got older, most of the rules started to be made in Brussels by baby boomers from other countries with very different priorities.

  • Dan Grover

    I’m 25 and I earn above the average salary – but I have very little ability to save for a mortgage deposit as long as I’m paying rent. I don’t want the government to help me, I just want them to get out of the way and let the private sector do what it usually does – fight to fulfil latent demand until prices come down sufficiently that the competition is based on quality rather than a mere existence (this has happened in everything from airlines to mobile phones). If the government’s regulations both on construction and the land that was allowed to be used for housing were significantly reformed and liberalised, I don’t think it’d take all that long before the new builds were pushing down the price rises sufficiently that “sitting on land” as you watch its potential value increase would diminish at a fast enough value that building the houses was actually worth it again. I don’t want special treatment, I just want similar opportunities as my parents’ generation to own my own home, because whilst owning ones home is by no means everything, it’s the single largest bill I pay (other than to HM Revenue and Customs, obviously) and makes the largest impact on my quality of life.

    Incidentally, I was the first year to be hit by the Top Up Fees – they weren’t as high as they are now, but there were also less grants. Coming from a relatively poor family, I suspecy my total bill wouldn’t be that much different today – however, I have no problem with it at all. Whilst an educated workforce is good for the country in general, I was and will remain far-and-away the largest beneficiary of my degree. Furthermore, it’s one of the few bits of taxation that I willingly took on after weighing up the options, the positives and the negatives, and coming to a decision. It’s by far the least offensive part of my outgoings, so I really think talking about student fees is a smoke screen. It’s better that I pay for it myself than some cleaner or shelf stacker on minimum wage.

    • Tom Tom

      Mobile phones prices came down through regulation not competition – there is no competition when they all share masts

      • Dan Grover

        I was referring to the telephones themselves, not the service plans, but even then there’s plenty of competition. They don’t all share all the masts, and even if they did, their prices aren’t the same – clearly there’s [i]some[/i] differentiation between them which leads to people being able to choose the one they prefer. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of choice in terms of the type and cost of plan (few minutes, lots of minutes, long term contracts, rolling 30 days contracts, pay as you go, with a phone included or without etc). I think it’s fundamentally wrong to say that “there is no competition”.

  • Smithersjones2013

    Whilst i can see the logic of most of this young man’s arguments the overriding question I have is ‘What on earth does he expect anyone to do about it now’?

    Yes its true for two decades or more Government has been shafting the nation (not just the young) and many from each generation are screwed but the nation is broke and the people most able to increase the productivity of this country to work their way out of it are the fit and healthy younger people.

    Now I’m sure that with a bit of persuasion all the older generations
    might be persuaded to indulge in some confession, apology and other
    self-flaggellation about the hardship of contemporary youth but will it actually help younger people’s lot?

    So all i can suggest is that young people like master Howker stop whining about what cannot be changed , switch their mobiles and their X-boxes off and just get on with it because in reality that is what every previous generation has had to do when they, at the same age, have made similar complaints.

    PS Whilst I appreciate the sentiment of stopping wealthy pensioners receiving benefits has young master Howker actually calculated what it will cost to implement the bureaucracy necessary to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving. I suspect the reason for a good few of these subsidiary benefits being universal is financial expedience. Still if master Howker does wish to further burden the nation with further financial overheads for the sake of ‘fairness’ I’m sure there will be those in the establishment political parties who will accommodate him…….

    • Dorkins

      I’d guess that “young master Howker” is an adult in his 30s. Why are you addressing him as if he were a child?

      • Makroon

        Because he writes like a child and thinks like a child ? Just like his chum Willetts.

  • MichtyMe

    I am oldish but the Government can’t buy my vote. My allowances can be removed. This is not altruism or generosity its just that all the youthful appetites and desires have gone, nothing I want to do requires much money. Tony Benn once said that in old age you become an involuntary Buddhist, yep he got that one right. Just wish that I’d had todays cash and leisuretime when young. Best have your retirement in your youth.

  • Colonel Mustard

    And so the tedious battles for prime victimhood continue. Men vs women, atheists vs believers, straights vs gays, young vs old, white vs black, Scots vs English, etc.

    • Dorkins

      Let me guess: your demographic is doing just fine, which is why you find the complaints of anybody else’s so tedious.

      • Colonel Mustard

        What might that “demographic” be then and define “doing just fine”?

        It is dork(in)s like you who have turned Britain into the collection of warring “demographic” camps it is today, jealously spiteful that someone in another “demographic” might be better off.

    • Makroon

      Correct. To quote a well-known film Ed Howker, “you’re wet behind the ears and your nose is running”, yawn.

  • MrsDBliss

    You say
    “The counterargument, of course, is that young people have brought it on themselves; that something has gone horribly wrong with parenting; that a new generation ‘lacks grit’. Iain Duncan-Smith, even warned of an ‘X-factor generation’, ‘sitting at home, waiting to become TV stars’. But youth unemployment in Britain is still higher now than when he assumed office.”
    But then acknowledge
    “Finally, I object to the manner in which governments spend money, condescendingly offering financial inducement to Britain’s numerous politically-active older generations to buy their votes.”
    Does that kind of prove IDS’s point; that younger generation can’t even be bothered to vote for their own interests every five years or, in fact, at all but expect politics to provide for them?

    • Dorkins

      Tell me which political party is offering the pro-young policies they should be turning out to vote for.

      • Makroon

        Monster Raving Loonies ?

      • post_x_it

        That’s a chicken and egg question though isn’t it. Far too many of the younger generation can’t be bothered to even find out which party offers what kind of policies. Politics simply doesn’t feature on their list of priorities, and they’re proud to say that they don’t vote. Even if it’s morally dubious, the parties all understand that they have nothing to gain from offering “pro-young” policies, because they would gain no recognition or votes from the beneficiaries.

        • Dorkins

          You seem to be assuming that politicians are perfectly rational and have perfect information about the number of votes they would gain or lose from each possible policy. I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple. Polls are a very rough tool, nobody really knows what would happen to a party with a genuinely pro-young policy platform come election time.

          • post_x_it

            You’re overcomplicating this. It doesn’t take much science to work out that political apathy is more prevalent among the young than among the middle-aged and old. Why don’t you take a snap poll among everyone you know under 30 and ask them whether they intend to vote in three weeks’ time and what the main parties’ key policies are. With the odd laudable exception you’ll find that you hit a brick wall pretty quickly.
            Politicians don’t have “perfect information”, but they know enough to realise that the older generation is more responsive to policy announcements in their favour.

  • you_kid

    Young people will adapt. They always do.

    In Britain that means no more free education followed by a life in perpetual debt servitude paying off that million pound mortgage for a desolate broom cupboard. The first world will observe with great interest as to when that generation will finally refuse to plaster over the cracks.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …well, they’ll still have you, the goat and all the windmills. So there’s that .

  • Count Dooku

    Yup, the Baby Boomers have consistently robbed their children vie the national debt and the bloated housing market.
    Dont worry, we shall have the last laugh when you retire by returning the favour through 10% inflation.

    • Smithersjones2013

      It was the baby Boomers largely who paid off the debts from the 2nd World War. As for 10% inflation. Child’s play. When I were a lad (living int shoebox int middle tut road) inflation reached thirteen per cent and interest rates topped 15%. People who lived through the 70’s know how much ‘fun’ such things are.

      So may I suggest you be thankful for small mercies. No one will be laughing if inflation rises to 10 per cent and interest rates follow…………

      • Count Dooku

        The baby boomers didn’t pay for anything. The debt never shrunk in real terms.

        You have just stated how the WW2 debt became manageable. Inflation.

        • Tom Tom

          If the baby boomers paid off the war debt then the £1200 billion we are headed towards must have been accrued during their lifetime which seems a tad excessive in 60 years

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