Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Plea for inter-generational solidarity

There is a move afoot to set generation against generation as part of an overall effort to blame others for an economic crisis largely created by the banks and financial sector.

The Coalition Government has set the tone, with its rhetoric of strivers against skivers and those in work versus those on benefits. The debate takes on an even sourer tone, when the rhetoric extends to people with disabilities being regarded as benefit cheats. Then there is the big scapegoat, immigrants, whose cause no party seems prepared to champion.

It against this context that the inter-generational conflict debate needs to be set. The media, in particular, seem keen to foster the idea that because the older generation or baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) had it all, the younger generation are now suffering. So the baby boomers have the houses, received a free education - with grants not loans, caused many of the problems of today like climate change and continue to cost younger generations more by living longer, receiving pensions and universal benefits like winter fuel allowance. They are also major recipients of health and social care.

The way in which the media foster this intergenerational conflict approach was nicely demonstrated earlier in the year when Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his government would be retaining the triple lock approach to pension rises beyond the next general election. The triple lock ensures that pensions will increase by the level of inflation, wage rises or 2.5% whichever is the greater.

The story was reported by contrasting this approach with that of the freeze that has been imposed on benefit rises that go to younger people.

Among the proponents of the view that there is some conflict between old and young is Conservative minister David Willetts, who wrote the book: ”the Pinch; how the baby boomers stole their children’s future” (2010). Willetts argues that if our political, economic and cultural leaders do not begin to discharge their obligations to the future, the young people of today will be taxed more, work longer hours for less money, have lower social mobility and live in a degraded environment in order to pay for their parents' quality of life.

Another adherent is Stephen King, chief economist at HSBC, who predicts a Peasant Revolt type response from the younger generation due to the perceived injustice of their predicament vis a via the baby boomers.

The real rationale behind this approach can be seen from the comments of political commentator and Yougov pollster Peter Kellner, who having accepted the analysis, then argues for extending the retirement age and cutting back on universal benefits like the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences for the over 75s and bus passes.

The justification for these moves to cut benefits for older people always come down to the argument that people are living longer. Men are now living to 78.8 and women to 82.8 years. (ONS – 2009 to 2011)  However, as CWU general secretary Billy Hayes recently pointed out there are vast differences in life expectancy, according to where an individual lives and what job they do.

So a person living in East Dorset lives 5.5 years longer than a Mancunian and 4.3 years longer than a Liverpudlian.

In occupational terms, white collar workers live around 2.5 years more than their blue collar counterparts. This is expected to increase to more than three years by 2028.

Hayes really hit the nail on the head with his analysis, namely that issue is really all about class, not demographics. There are increasing numbers of young and old living in poverty, just as there are young and old among the growing numbers of billionaires.

There is though a caveat to be added, namely why should anyone be surprised if those who are older and have worked longer have more. “Why would those who have not yet spent 40 or 50 years working expect to have higher incomes and wealth than those who have? Should young people, not far into their working career, who have not yet saved much and have debts, be better off than those at the end of many decades of work?” said Ros Altmann, director general of Saga. “Of course, part of the reason for these seemingly illogical expectations is that in the past pensioners were usually poor. And the older they were, the poorer they were. The general rises in living standards of society had left them far behind as the baby boom generations contributed to economic growth and more women worked.”

It is interesting how whenever the argument about getting rid of universal benefits like the winter fuel allowance or bus pass arises, it is the millionaire pensioners like Lord Alan Sugar who are quoted. Yet statistically among Britain’s 11 million pensioners fewer than 0.01% have an annual income of £1m or more, and less than 0.3% have liquid assets of more than £1m. The 1.8 million (16 per cent) who live in poverty (AgeUK) some how fail to get a mention in this skewed media lexicon.

The argument that older people are a drain on the younger generation simply does not stack up. One in three working mothers rely on grandparents for childcare, the value of which has been estimated at £3.9 billion. It's been estimated that grandparents who bring up their grandchildren, for whatever reason, are contributing £10bn to the economy in saved care costs. “What we see on Gransnet is older people not only looking after their grandchildren, but looking after elderly parents as well. If someone in your family has dementia, who is it who pulls everything together? It's usually a woman in mid-life. I would resist the idea that the boomer generation is parasitic,” said Geraldine Bedell of Grandsnet.

The NPC reiterates the point. “Whilst the overall cost to the Exchequer (providing pensions, age-related welfare payments and health services) was found to be £136.2bn, the revenues from older people (financial or otherwise) added up to £175.8bn. The overall net contribution by older people to the economy was therefore almost £40bn a year,” said a spokesperson for the NPC.

In addition, between £3.7 and £5.5 billion of means-tested benefits that should rightfully go to older people in Britain went unclaimed in 2009-10.

Dot Gibson, general secretary of the NPC attacks efforts via the media to foster intergenerational conflict. “They are trying to whip up an attack on pensioners. If people pay in they are entitled. If they are getting a load of dough, then tax them,” said Dot, who questioned the claim that older people do not care about the young. “Do they think we’re not bothered that they (young) have nowhere to live or work. It is disgusting what is happening to young people.”

The reality is that some amongst the political elite and media are trying via the intergenerational conflict argument to drive another wedge between working people – this time old and young. The real division is between the extremely rich who under the present neo-liberal system of market economics take increasingly more of the overall cake and everyone else. It is not coincidental that there are 88 billionaires in UK, up from 53 in 2009. That the top 1,000 richest people in UK now have £450 billion of wealth – an increase of £150 billion in the past three years. Meanwhile more than 500,000 people go to foodbanks.

The attempts of those who seek to foster inter-generational conflict need to be resisted. The old trade union declaration that an attack on one is an attack on all, has never been more apposite than in the case of intergenerational solidarity as opposed to divide and rule.

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