Equality Between Generations Is In Terminal Decline In Britain

03/10/2016 16:17

People born in the early 1980s have almost half the average median household wealth of those born a decade earlier, according to a report released on Friday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. The headline figure sounds shocking, but it shouldn't surprise anyone. Intergenerational fairness is in terminal decline in Britain.

Since the end of the postwar consensus in the UK in the late 1970s, under which the two biggest parties broadly accepted a socioeconomic and political system, each generation has become steadily worse off than the one preceding it, by most measures. House prices are one clear example. At the end of 1975, the average house price in Britain was £11,288, according to Nationwide. In 1995, it was £50,930. The average at the end of 2015 was £197,044. Wages have, of course, risen during this time; in fact, they have nearly doubled for full-time employees since 1975, after accounting for inflation. Which is good, except that over this period, the average house price increased by 1,645%. Even adjusting for inflation, the increase still dwarfs that of salaries.

There are other ways of assessing intergenerational balance, such as income. The IFS report found that early 1980s children were the first generation since the second world war not to have higher incomes in early adulthood than those born in the previous decade. This is even more pronounced for people born in the early 1990s, who came of age during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. The IFS also found that wages were 1% lower in the third quarter of 2014 than in the same period 13 years earlier, after taking inflation into account. Over the six years from 2008, wages fell for all age groups, but nobody suffered more than under 30s.

The high possibility of future environmental catastrophe, despite the lauded Paris climate agreement reached in December 2015, is also likely to render the post-2000 generation less fortunate than their predecessors. Whether action to combat climate change is all-encompassing and radical or mediocre and half-hearted, flooding, increasingly high temperatures, droughts and desertification will cause major population shifts, the social and economic impact of which will have to be managed by richer countries, including Britain. That is not to mention the estimated 35% of jobs in the UK that will be put at risk by automation due to the rise of artificial intelligence.

There are several other disparities between the experiences of millennials - meaning those born between 1980 and 2000, by most descriptions - and Generation X, taken to signify people who came into the world between the mid 1960s and late 1970s. Some are perhaps indicators of greater media prevalence and increased self-reporting and public awareness, such as the significant rise in mental illnesses among young women, but certainly not all.

The drastic increase in tuition fees, which were introduced at £1,000 a year in 1998 (affecting those born from 1980 onwards, but not before), to £3,000 in 2006 and £9,000 in 2012, is another major disparity. While university education is exponentially more accessible to millennials, the flipside of this has been an enormous rise in debts for young people entering employment. People currently in their twenties and thirties will also have to work longer than previous generations, receive less generous pensions and, according to the Intergenerational Foundation, face a "pension burden avalanche" from spending promises made to older people.

The vote in June to leave the EU is likely to affect younger people more than most, although the long-term effects remain unknown. It is yet to be seen whether cross-EU educational programmes such as Erasmus will survive the arduous Brexit negotiations, and whether British students seeking affordable education will have to pay international fees at European universities. Then there is the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds were unable to vote in the referendum and 75% of people under 25 wanted to remain in the EU, according to a YouGov poll.

Younger people who point out that their generations are doing worse by several metrics are frequently put in their place by those who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. We are described as narcissists, materialistic, obsessed with technology, lazy, unwilling to engage with politics, whinging and not worldly wise. Some of these are perhaps fair; others, less so. It is true that we have greater opportunities for foreign travel and communication is much simpler for us. But millennials are still losing out in a number of ways and there is very little prospect of this changing any time soon.

The biggest problem with all of this is that nobody in a position of power is the slightest bit interested in levelling the playing field. The Conservative party aims its policies at older people because they turn out to vote, and when young people do not do this, we cannot really expect politicians on the right, who look destined to rule for decades, to do anything to help us. Theresa May talks about creating a Britain that works for everyone, not just the "privileged few". I seem to remember David Cameron saying something similar. Look how that turned out.