The Selfish Generation

Patsy and Edina

Patsy and Edina

David Willetts’ book is subtitled, ‘How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back.’ This seems to imply a malign intention on the part of the post-war generation and, sure enough, at points in the book, Willetts talks of the ‘ultra-individualism unleashed’ by this generation, whose failure to exercise self-control he deplores. If you are part of a large cohort, he argues, ‘you will be able to spend your life in a generational bubble, always outvoting and outspending the generations before and after you.’ We are the selfish generation.

But can we help ourselves? It isn’t clear. A book subtitled, ‘How the baby boomers took their children’s future – but that’s what large cohorts do,’ wouldn’t have had quite the same edge. You get the sense that Willetts would quite like to be cross with the boomers (of whom he is one, having been born in 1956) because they have behaved very badly, but he knows it would be intellectually dishonest, because they didn’t have the faintest idea what they were doing.

Willetts has become Minister of State for universities and science since his book was published. Famously clever, he is one of the few British politicians thinking seriously about demography. So seriously, in fact, that The Pinch is in essence an attempt to view history and contemporary society through its prism.

He has applied both of his legendary brains to the task, proving himself equally at home with the Upper Paleolithic period as with Sex and the City, with game theory and Rawls’ Theory of Justice as with Slumdog Millionaire and The Simpsons. His method is philosophical: there is a lot of going back to first principles and spinning out webs of arguments. But sometimes the erudition runs away with itself, and you are left – breathless, certainly – but a little confused about what he’s actually saying. Should we be blaming individuals, families, or the state for what he identifies as the breakdown in the intergenerational contract?

There is an enormous amount of fascinating stuff, even so, because looking at the ways in which demography affects the world throws up novel insights. Music from the years of the boomers’ youth is very popular both with the general public (because of weight of boomer numbers) but also with music specialists, because in the years when there are a lot of young people, experimental and innovative bands can make a living. What, Willetts asks, do Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Congo and Somalia have in common, apart from the obvious? They are all teenage countries. Similarly, on our own most troubled estates, the proportion of children to adults is much higher than elsewhere.

The Pinch

The Pinch

The trouble is that if you believe demography has such a big influence, you can’t really argue that there has been a failure of will or morality on the part of the baby boomers in nicking the kids’ inheritance. Willetts does explicitly say (although not until the end of the penultimate chapter): ‘This book is not an attack on baby boomers – it is an appeal to them about how they use this power.’ So if we assume that the members of the post-war generation didn’t have a clue about their power hitherto, what should they do with it now?

Willetts is rather better on analysis than prescription. As a former shadow pensions minister, he is particularly exercised that we simply haven’t saved enough for retirement. While this is true (if rather galling to hear if your pension was with Equitable Life) it overlooks the fact that most individuals haven’t chosen what to save. Some have been lucky enough to be enrolled in good pension schemes; others haven’t.

His other big complaint is that people have assumed house prices would keep rising and have borrowed against them. ‘If we thought house prices were going to stay high, our children would need the money to pay for their houses. If we thought they would fall, it was never there to spend.’ Pensioners, though, currently own 80% of private wealth in the UK, with the over-65s controlling £460bn in unmortgaged equity alone – enough money to fund the NHS for 10 years. Some of this money may well have to be released to pay for social care; but is there anything wrong with that? Willetts assumes that the housing bubble of recent years has burst; but the truth is that house prices have not collapsed and may not do so.

There are other issues unresolved, or unaddressed. The pensions crisis could be eased considerably if people worked longer. We know from study after study that the benefits of continuing to work include better physical and mental health, so this could bring not only direct gains to the economy also indirect ones in savings to NHS and care budgets.

Willetts mentions environmental issues as a further area to which the large ‘lucky generation’ has paid insufficient attention in the boom years. While he recognises that older people display more concern for the future, he doesn’t extrapolate from this the environmental benefits of an ageing population. Fred Pearce and others have argued that a much higher proportion of older people, probably dominated by women, may well have significant effects on environmental priorities. Willetts notes that grandmothers are crucial to childcare for many families, but doesn’t draw the obvious inference, that a large cohort of fitter older people could well be poised to deploy their talents and time for the good of society.

The Pinch of the title refers to a time in the near future when the pensions shortfall will collide with global population movements caused by environmental distress, but transformational technologies like nuclear fusion will not yet have come onstream. Willetts puts this at around 2030. Leaving aside the possibility that global population movements could be quite useful to ageing countries, I am sure he is right in his fundamental contention that for one reason and another the post war generation has been remiss towards its children. (I suspect, though, that he does severely underplay the effects of globalisation on the young).

In the end, his book is really a plea to government. The British post-war generation, born roughly between 1945 and 1965, don’t by and large identify themselves as a group in the way Americans do. ‘Baby boomers’ feels like an imported idea. Willetts touches on the reasons for this reluctance to see oneself as part of a generational movement, not least that the UK saw a couple of spikes in its birthrate rather than a consistently high plateau. It is only when you stand a very long way back, as he has done, that you can perceive that the size of this cohort has had an effect.

The Pinch is a fascinating book, and, for the most part, only covertly political. David Willetts’ concern for future generations is plain and admirable, and he has clearly been profoundly alarmed by what he learned as shadow minister for pensions. His central argument is that there has been an intellectual failure to think about the claims of the generations that will come after us. He compares us with the Iroquois, who ‘were supposed to have a rule in their tribal council that they should consider the impact of any decision on the next seven generations’. It remains to be seen whether, in office, Willetts can persuade the new government to take a similarly expansive view

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2 thoughts on “The Selfish Generation

  1. The Pinch contains a fable at the beginning of the fourth chapter about a primitive tribe of hunter-gatherers that encapsulates the reason that individuals and society must honour their cross-generational responsibilities more eloquently than anything else I’ve read thus far.

    It also throws considerable light on the demographic nature of the electoral sciences, and provides a framework to explain why conservative-led coalition has focused on protecting those services that the baby boomers are most reliant upon (like the NHS), whilst slashing everything else back without mercy.

    David Willetts I think has laid bare the deft mechanisms by which the boomers have retained political, social and economic control of Britain for three decades, and is now personally stuck in a rather awkward position; caught between party loyalty and the notion of watching that same party steamroller the interests of the neglected generations (the young in particular – tuition fee rise?) in precisely the manner he pleads should not be employed within The Pinch.

    Nevertheless, the book remains a milestone work on the subject of demographically-driven inequality.

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