The program was part of the thought provoking New World series, with this edition looking at the demographic challenges facing the world.
Looking at the British situation, Willetts made out his old argument that young people are being denied due to the largesse of past generations – specifically the baby boomers, who had it all. What is more, they continue to thrive with generous pension provision and universal benefits, like winter fuel allowances, travel concessions and free TV licenses.
Willetts believes that the elderly must give these things up to help the younger generation. He baldly stated that the triple lock on the state pension which sees increases of the greater of the rate of increase in earnings, prices or 2.5% cannot be afforded anymore. The cost argument was also applied to universal benefits.
Willetts and supporters of this intergenerational argument go on to say that with people living longer, they should be forced to work longer and retire later.
The whole argument is wrongheaded at many levels.
First, there are poor pensioners, as well as poor students. Reducing the argument down to younger people don’t have houses, decent jobs and free education because the older people have it all is simply wrong.
The reality is that with 1% of the world’s population holding much of the wealth, the remaining 99% are forced to struggle by on what is left. This division cuts across demographic boundaries, effecting both old and young.
It is interesting that it is usually people like Willetts, Ian Duncan Smith, former Work and Pensions Secretary, Ros Altmann, former pensions minister and members of the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee, who tend to be part of the 1%, that argue things like the triple lock and universal benefits cannot be afforded.
Frankly, in the fifth largest economy in the world to argue that decent pensions and welfare cannot be afforded is risible. The underlying agenda of this group seems to be that people are mainly here to serve their class. This means working longer for less and ideally dying in work without drawing a pension at all. Then the 1% class can continue to live comfortably supported by ordinary working people. Notably, the age for retirement is edging up toward 70 – the place where it started when the state pension was introduced in 1911.
The argument about people living longer is also questionable. Yes the baby boomer generation may be living longer than previous generations but what of those who come after. They are the fast food generations that already boast record levels of obesity. There is also the growing focus on sedentary work, based around computers for increasing numbers of people. Add in the wide geographical differences in life expectancy, with someone living in Middlesbrough living a lot shorter life than a resident of Kensington and the idea that everyone is living longer is to put it mildly questionable.
The problem with Willetts and others who constantly seem to try to ferment this intergenerational conflict is that they bring the debate down to a race to the bottom. One group of society is set against another – this time young versus old. The present government are past masters of the approach - setting worker against benefit claimant, indigenous against migrant and deserving against undeserving poor.
Intergenerational solidarity is what is required in the face of those who seek to divide young and old. Remember in most cases the pensioners that Willetts and co seek to penalise are the grandparents of the youngsters struggling for education and housing.Pensions and universal benefits can be afforded for the elderly and everyone else. Students should have free education, young people should have houses. All these things are achievable with a little realigning of society. Ofcourse, in order to pay for such a society those from the 1% might just have to part up with a bit of their huge largesse but that is the price to be paid for a more stable, happy and secure world