The baby boomers' last stand
As the leaves begin to fall and the supermarkets stock up on pumpkins and fireworks, somewhere in a studio not too far away, production assistants are busy creating “review of the year” news packages, ready for repetitive screenings over Christmas and New Year. As a news addict I look forward to such features, not least because they help contextualise 365 days worth of events and let us take stock, and there can be few years where we so needed a break from the news and a period to make sense of it all. In fact I feel for those production assistants. How do you fit two prime ministers, the most divisive presidential election in history, the most divisive referendum in UK political history, a deteriorating situation in Syria, a refugee crisis and a host of celebrity obituaries in a short “year in review” feature?
Looking back, I can’t help but think that the year’s major events are linked by a common theme, the centrality of one generation to them all.
On the 4th January I woke up to the news that David Bowie, a synonym of great music and creativity, and a hero in our house, had passed. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a tear that morning. Over the next few months a host of other celebrities would follow, Alan Rickman, Johan Cruyff, Victoria Wood, Mohamed Ali. As social media remarked at the time of their passing Bowie, Cruyff and Rickman were all 69.
On the 24th June, having been up all night I woke my wife up at 7.30am to tell her that Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Disbelieving, we both took our places in front of the TV to watch Prime Minister David Cameron emerge from Number 10 Downing Street to give his resignation speech. As the United Kingdom struggled to work out exactly what had happened, in a referendum that most pundits, politicians and psephologists said Remain was very likely to win. Among much of the post-mortem that followed, one strong theme emerged, the difference in voting intention corresponding with time of life. In a You Gov poll on “how the UK voted poll” 71 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted remain against 29 per cent voting to leave. For the 65+ category it was 36/64 in the other direction. Given their propensity to turn out at the ballot box, it was the baby boomers what won it.
There is of course one event that will shape 2016 that has not yet happened. That is when American voters come to elect the 48th president of the United States on November 6th 2016. Clinton Vs Trump is one of the most interesting and potentially unpredictable races in years. It has also been one of the most divisive, with a worrying focus on insults rather than issues. One not often commented fact though, in a context where the majority of American’s do not particularly like either candidate; Clinton turns 69 just before polling day while Donald J Trump was 70 in June. This is a baby boomer on baby boomer election, the oldest ever pair of candidates. If Trump wins he would be the oldest first term President ever while Clinton would be second only to Ronald Regan and only by a matter of days. Meanwhile the graph below from a polling sample in Florida identifies a clear division in support when you arrive at the baby boomer generation, with it breaking better for Trump than Clinton.
Add to this the other political events of the year, the consolidation of the leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, age? 67, the rise of whipper snapper Teresa May, who turned 60 the week of her first address to the Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister. Next year, we’ll see elections in France and Germany where Francois Hollande (age 62) and Angela Merkel (age 62) face difficult contests to represent their parties, never mind their respective countries. In the case of Hollande, Merkel and Clinton, the nearest challengers to be their party’s nomination for their county’s highest political office are actually older than them, Alain Juppe, Wolfgang Schäuble and Bernie Sanders, are all over 70.
2016 then, seems to have underlined the boomers’ hegemonic position over national culture and politics in western countries, but it has also provided more evidence of the dominant financial position.
A report by the Resolution Foundation over the summer released found a baby boomer at age 30 was 50 per cent more likely to own their own home than a millennial at the same age. The dominate political power of the baby boomers is also represented in the tax and welfare system with current tax and spend plans taking £1.7 billion from millennials while giving away £1.2 billion to the baby boomers in the next four years.
Resolution chair and author of a book on intergenerational fairness David (Lord)Willets estimates baby boomers own more than £6.7tn national wealth in the UK and that those born between 1956 and 1961 are forecast to get from the welfare state 118% of what they will have put into it.
Even the failure of successive governments to deliver large scale new build housing has an aspect of the baby boomer phenomenon in it. With the boomers having so much equity built up in housing many worry about the effect of new build housing on their own house prices, when ministers talk about “red tape in the planning system”, there is s a significant level of local opposition to new developments by those who already live there.
No wonder then that Inter-generational fairness is a trend topic in public policy currently, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee launched an inquiry into it early this year, the influential Resolution Foundation have launched a commission chaired by Lord Willets and with an exceptional cast of Commissioners and technicians from Paul Johnson at the IFS to Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC.
Given the influence of the Resolution Foundation on public policy in the UK the commission has a huge opportunity to begin a shift back to a more equitable intergenerational contract.
For policy makers and shapers this will be a difficult circle to square, divisive or punitive measures against the baby boomers would be both morally un-attractive and politically impossible; the rebuilding of the new intergenerational contract then requires the consent and co-operation of the boomers. The scale of the challenge facing policy shapers and politicians is outlined neatly by events at the recent Conservative Party conference, where new housing minister Gavin Barwell drew criticism this at when he suggested baby boomers shouldn’t necessarily inherit family homes from their parents but this wealth should be re-distributed to millenials. In his speech at the same conference Barwell’s boss Communities Secretary Sajid Javid said that “While everyone agreed on the need for new homes, “too many” opposed them in their own community” only for his department to “call in” a plan to build homes on the greenbelt in Bradford the following week.
At Commonweal two of our projects in particular dealing with the lack of housing equitable options for younger generations are our Peer Landlord and Freedom 2 Work projects. The Peer Landlord project looks at rebooting shared housing into a form of move on housing, predominantly for under 30s, with a lead member of each shared home taking responsibility for some aspects of housing management, utility bills etc with the idea being it becomes a supportive, rather than supported scheme. Our Freedom 2 Work project meanwhile seeks to encourage tenants in shared housing to build savings in a rent account, incentivised by a top up from the project which can then be used as a buffer against the welfare taper as the tenant moves into work or increases their hours in employment. One of the less reported remarks Barwell made at Tory conference was to suggest we need greater innovation in the Private Rented Sector to tackle the current crisis, he is right it is a literal necessity to get to grips with the current crisis. One of the lessons Commonweal has learned over recent years is the potential for shared housing to be moulded to suit different client groups in order to meet the challenges of the UK housing crisis.
Innovating new solutions in addition to reforming old solutions and structures will be key components of re-balancing the intergenerational contract, let’s hope 2017 sees some progress made.
Jacob Quagliozzi is External Affairs and Communications Coordinator for Commonweal Housing