If not for old people, we wouldn’t have society at all, says Minister

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Stolen property?

Last night I went to see David Willetts speak about his book The Pinch and the ideas behind it, courtesy of Policy Exchange. Willetts is always an interesting politician – thoughtful rather than ideological, and exhibiting a fascination with the detail of demographics that is both impressive and slightly exhausting.

The evening really came alive during the questions, which were of a rather erudite standard. Perhaps the most interesting thing Willetts said came right at the very end, when he speculated that if human beings were born adult and died in their prime, most of the institutions that make us human and hold us together would not exist.

It is our vulnerability, including the vulnerability of the old, that means there must be such a thing as society. For the new Minister for Universities, the need for different generations to understand, respect, and play fairly by one another isn’t just a question of the transfer of assets; it’s a moral question.

For Conservatives, who are often understood to resist the idea of a state beyond defence and policing, he argued that the idea of needing to transfer resources across generations is what makes sense of and (though he didn’t put it quite like this) justifies the interference of the state.

Additionally, in a modern and diverse society in which traditional conservative appeals – ‘this is the way we do things here’ –  don’t necessarily work, the idea of an intergenerational contract is something we can all buy into. In fact, Willetts went so far as to say that in an agnostic society, it helps people to attach a meaning to their lives that is about more than consuming.

So relationships between the generations matter a lot. What he didn’t resolve – and doesn’t in the book – is how this is best managed. His first questioner pointed out that affluent boomers can expect their children to inherit their houses after having had a very nice time on gap years and drinking lattes and doing peculiar Generation Y jobs that mainly involve sitting in cafes. So perhaps there’s not so much to worry about after all.

Willetts’ argument in The Pinch is that this won’t happen because boomers have mortgaged and remortgaged their houses, riding house price inflation to consume. A lot depends on what happens to house prices of course; but even if the questioner’s prediction turns out to be correct, it will only exacerbate inequality and make social mobility much more difficult. So it’s hardly desirable.

The big unresolved question of the night (as of the book) was how to strike a balance between the perfectly natural desire of parents to do the best by their children and the wider need of society to ensure it bequeaths possibilities and equity to the next generation. Willetts’ analysis is a brave attempt to get beyond class politics, but somehow class – or at least money – will keep rearing its ugly head. Interesting stuff, though.

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