Having been born in 1983, I am a part of Ed Howker’s ‘jilted generation’. I think it is quite reasonable for him to argue that governments of all parties have made choices which do not reflect our interests, or those of future generations.
They have increased public spending, which will reduce medium term growth and diminish our future earnings; they have borrowed eye-watering amounts of money which we will have to pay back; they have taken far too long to undertake vital reforms like putting in place a reasonable schedule of increases in the pension age. More young people think that the moon landings were faked than think that the Government will be able to provide the same level of benefits available today when they retire.
Does Ed think our parents couldn’t have made similar complaints?
In the 1970s, Britain had experienced decades of relative economic decline. Large parts of British industry were hopelessly uncompetitive. It was the era of the three day week and politicians of all parties had found the country almost ungovernable.
We need to keep our situation today in some perspective. The economy was hardly in great shape last year, when I got married, but circumstances in 2013 were far more promising than they were in 1977 when my parents got married. We need to realise just how revolutionary improvements in living standards have been, even in developed economies and even in our lifetimes.
Dubious statistics about median household earnings have led too many people to the clearly erroneous conclusion that progress in living standards has stalled for a generation. Even some who should know better like Tim Harford – the ‘Undercover Economist’ at the Financial Times – who has written recently about how he believes living standards have stagnated in the developed world.
All the statistics below are for the UK and – where possible – compare 1983 to the latest year for which data is available. There are a whole host of ways in which your life is probably better than it would have been thirty years ago:
- You earn more. Average earnings – in 2010 prices – have risen by 38 per cent from £16,020 in 1983 to £22,110 in 2013, despite the severe recession that has seen earnings fall from their peak in 2007. Of course, experiences differ, but research by Pew in the United States shows that the vast majority of people earn considerably more than their parents did at the same age.
- You are less likely to die. The adult death rate – the number of people who we can expect to die between the ages of 15 and 60 – has fallen by 30 per cent from 104 per 1000 people in 1990 to 73 per 1000 people in 2012.
- Your baby is less likely to die. The infant mortality rate – the number of babies who die before the age of one – has fallen by 58 per cent from 10.1 per 1000 live births in 1983 to 4.2 per 1000 live births in 2011.
- You are less likely to be the victim of a crime. The number of crimes reported in the Crime Survey for England and Wales fell by 35 per cent from around 240 per 1000 people in 1983 to around 160 per 1000 people in the year ending September 2012. There is an extensive debate over the quality of the crime statistics, but the trend does now at least appear to be firmly in the right direction.
- You are more likely to travel abroad. The number of trips abroad has risen by 138 per cent from around 370 per thousand people to around 890 per thousand people.
- You are more likely to have been to university. In 1992, just 17 per cent of adults had graduated from a higher education course. In 2013, that figure reached 38 per cent.
- The environment around you has become more pleasant (in many ways):
- You breathe cleaner air. This is a bit more of a mixed bag, but urban average annual levels of background PM10 – the small particles which can penetrate the deepest part of the lungs such as the bronchioles or alveoli – are down by about half, from 35 μg m-3 in 1992 to 18 μg m-3 in 2013.
- The water in the rivers is cleaner. The percentage of total river length in England that is of ‘good’ biological quality has risen from about 63 per cent in 1990 to about 73 per cent in 2009. Over the same period, the percentage of total river length that is of “good” chemical quality has risen from about 55 per cent to about 80 per cent.
- Vandalism and graffiti are on the decline.
- You are less likely to be injured at work. The number of injuries requiring an over 3-day absence from work is down from 1,500 per 100,000 workers in 2001-02 to 810 per 100,000 workers in 2012-13 and the number of injuries requiring an over 7-day absence from work is down from 980 per 100,000 workers in 2003-04 to 610 per 100,000 workers in 2012-13.
- You are more likely to own all kinds of goods. From 1980 to 2011 the percentage of households owning…
- …a car or van increased from 60 per cent to 75 per cent;
- …central heating increased from 59 per cent to 96 per cent;
- …a washing machine increased from 79 per cent to 97 per cent; and
- …a telephone increased from 72 per cent to 88 per cent.
- And from 1996-97 to 2011 the percentage of households owning…
- …a tumble dryer increased from 51 per cent to 56 per cent;
- …a dishwasher increased from 20 per cent to 41 per cent;
- …a microwave increased from 75 per cent to 92 per cent;
- …a mobile phone increased from 16 per cent to 87 per cent (many of those mobile phones are, by even recent standards, amazing – one US expert calculated it would have cost over $3 million to replicate an iPhone’s features in 1991); and
- …a home computer increased from 27 per cent to 79 per cent.
- And the percentage of households with a connection to the Internet increased from 9 per cent in 1998-99 to 77 per cent in 2011.
Again, all of those statistics describe progress right here in the United Kingdom and all those improvements in living standards have taken place within my lifetime and affect much more than 1 per cent of the income distribution. If you think that real earnings haven’t increased, how exactly have people been able to afford all those nice things?
And the raw increase in consumption probably understates our real progress as it misses that there is a greater variety of goods available to us thanks to an increasingly diverse global market place, which we also value. Research by the New York Fed in 2005 found that the ‘value to [US] consumers of global variety growth in the 1972-2001 period was roughly $260 billion.’
Of course, the reason why it is hard to measure living standards (or even more woolly concepts like ‘well-being’) is that we then have what is called an index number problem: how should we weigh up all that progress against those things that are harder now, like affording a home in London?
You need to answer that question for yourself. If some demon came to you in the night and offered this trade, would you take it?
You can have a cheap flat, but in return you will have to give up your mobile phone, your computer and your Internet connection. No Facebook for you. You might not have a car or be able to travel abroad. Kiss that holiday in sunny Florida goodbye. And there will be a significantly higher chance that you will be seriously hurt in an industrial accident, die young, or see your child die young.
I am confident that I would refuse such an offer. Britain is a better place for the hard work of the countless people who have made their contribution – large or small – to human progress over the last thirty years. We are lucky to be children of the Thatcherite revolution and have grown up in a country with a functioning market economy open to the world.
There are plenty of challenges left. Britain’s tax code is in desperate need of reform, to give just one example, and our democracy is fraying around the edges. We should reject economic policy too obsessed with performance in the next quarter at the expense of prosperity over the next quarter century. But we need to see our task for what it is: a golden opportunity to build on the progress made by our parents; to build a still better world.
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.