Tory peer Lord Willetts has been accused of dehumanising older people, inciting intergenerational conflict and encouraging a sense of powerlessness among younger people after publishing a book that critics say “pitches young against old”.
In the second edition of his book, The Pinch, Willetts uses new research to warn that young millennials are on course to pay more and receive less from the UK’s education, health and benefit systems than any other postwar cohort, while baby boomers born in the 1950s are set to gain the most.
Willetts, who is also the president of the Resolution Foundation’s Intergenerational Centre and a former Conservative minister, says Britain is now racked by age divides and warns the problem is getting worse.
He argues that baby boomers born in the mid-1950s, are set for a welfare dividend of £291,000 over the course of their lives. By contrast, millennials born in 1996 are set to receive a far smaller dividend of £132,000 typically, according to the analysis.
He said: When I first wrote The Pinch 10 years ago, I wanted to sound a warning siren that huge intergenerational injustices were opening up across Britain, and that young people were losing out while my generation was doing well. 10 years on, those divides have got worse.”
He continued: “Britain’s generational divides are affecting our living standards, and how we vote. Our political parties should use the upcoming election to start healing these divides with a policy programme that appeals to and benefits young and old alike.”
But Sir John Robert Hills, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics and director of the ESRC Research Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, said it was crucial to acknowledge that there are “many baby boomers who have little or no wealth, and many in younger generations who are already building wealth or – crucially – can look forward to inheritance and/or help from the bank of Mum and Dad.”
“The evidence in the book that I think is most telling is that the poorest pensioners are now well ahead of the poorest people of working age,” he said. “We have made sure that the poorest pensioners have not been ‘left behind’, but for a decade and a half we have run our social security system in a way that ensures that the poorest non-pensioners have been.
“At the same time, wealth has become far more valuable in relation to incomes but that wealth is concentrated in the ‘baby boomer’ generation,” added Hills, who was on the Resolution Foundation’s intergenerational commission.
“But it is crucial to see this alongside the considerable inequalities within each generation. It’s the combination of greater generational differences alongside huge inequalities within each generation that is having such a profound effect on Britain’s social fabric,” he added.
Peter Matejic, head of evidence at the independent Joseph Rowntree Foundation, agreed: “This analysis looks at inequalities across the generations but it’s important to also look at inequalities within a generation or how the poorest members of a certain generation compare to say the poorest members of an earlier or later generation.”
Jennie Bristow, author of Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer Blaming Won’t Solve Anything, said Willetts’s interpretation of the data was simplistic.
“His claims about the ‘age divide’ present economic problems as generational conflicts, and this is a dangerously divisive strategy,” she said.
“The idea that all older people are wealthy and all young people are struggling presents a simplistic and misleading picture, which refuses to acknowledge that social class remains the key division in our unequal society, and that hard economic times affect people of all ages.”
“The central assumption of The Pinch … dehumanises older people as the ‘undeserving rich’,” she added. “The relentless claim that young people can never hope to have things as good as the baby boomers did, encourages a pessimistic sense of grievance and powerlessness among younger people and lets policymakers off the hook when it comes to providing bolder solutions to the problems caused by sluggish economic growth and structural inequalities.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK also criticised Willetts for “pitching of ‘young versus old’ and the apparent placing of responsibility onto the so-called ‘baby boomers’ for the difficulties young people face today, rather than on successive governments for the political choices they have made, in some of which he himself served”.
Jonathan Cribb, a senior research economist from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said that there is lots of data, “pointing in different directions”. “It’s true that on lots of measures, younger generations aren’t as well off but on other measures, younger people aren’t doing so badly.
‘It depends what you focus on because it’s a nuanced picture. Millennials are massively better off than previous generations: their income at 30 years old is £28,000 a year compared to the (inflation adjusted) £16,000 a year at age 30 for those born in the 50s.
“Their employment rate at 82% is great and women’s pay is fantastic in comparison to past generations,” he added. “On the other hand, employees aged 22-39 experienced the largest falls in real average earnings following the 2008 recession.”