Are the Tories Losing the Generation Game?

05/12/2011 22:57 GMT | Updated 04/02/2012 10:12 GMT

If last week filled in the blanks on the economic story of the next few years, it also opened up a deeper set of questions about what the new economic landscape means for our culture and politics.

Of course, the full answer will only become clear in hindsight and, in the meantime, many a prediction will no doubt prove ill-judged. But two stories from last week helped to sketch out one cultural consequence of the squeeze that is already taking shape: a huge surge in generational pessimism and a shift in the plates of generational politics.

The first story was a new poll from ipsos MORI that revealed an astounding level of gloom about today's younger generation. Just 23% of people now think their children will enjoy better living standards than their own generation while 35% think the next generation will be worse off.

The figures are a complete reversal since 2003, when 43% thought their children would do better than them and just 12% thought they'd do worse. That's a shift from a net positive of 31 to a net negative of 12 in less than a decade, an unusually rapid turnaround for such a fundamental indicator of our long-term economic optimism.

The second story came from Nick Clegg, who was out and about floating the idea of means-testing universal pensioner benefits. His comments were made in the context of the government's plans for a further £30 billion of additional cuts from 2015.

He suggested that better-off elderly people would need to make 'sacrifices', most likely through the means-testing of universal benefits like free buses passes, free TV licences and the Winter Fuel Allowance. His party, he said, would be pushing for such moves in the government's next Spending Review.

It all signals a big shift in the calculus of generational politics, and one that in due course may leave the PM and Chancellor increasingly exposed. That's because, aside from their central judgment on deficit reduction, the single biggest political punt taken by Cameron and Osborne has been to fiercely protect spend on the older generation at the cost of hitting working-age families with children.

As last week's further raid on tax credits showed, that approach still binds their hands in spending decisions. It's why, when they went looking for an extra £1.2 billion of new savings in the autumn statement, they looked no further than low income working families. More than three quarters of those new cuts will come from families in the bottom half. Clegg might be repositioning himself but, for now, universal benefits for the affluent have been left alone.

Of course, that approach will have had a powerful logic back in 2009. The median age of a voter in the 2005 election was 50 and that figure will only rise in the coming years. Nothing has changed about those demographic facts. But what does seem to be changing is the viability of winning the grey vote by protecting the old at the expense of the young. With the older generation now more worried about their children than themselves, action to help their working-age children and younger grandchildren will become an increasingly attractive political strategy for 2015.