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Coffee House

Politicians have jilted a generation – it’s wrong to say that young people have never had it so good

28 April 2014

3:58 PM

28 April 2014

3:58 PM

Is there something outrageous about Britain’s younger generations complaining that society is failing them? That’s the question posed by the title of a forthcoming Spectator debate, but I get the impression that some in this magazine’s stable already have an answer.

In 2011, one writer, senior in both senses, decried chippy youngsters as selling ‘the politics of envy’. Another – the editor – called those who rabbit on about youth unemployment, housing problems and tuition fees ‘generational jihadists’. In 2010, I co-wrote a book called Jilted Generation: How Britain has bankrupted its youth, so I guess that Fraser Nelson was talking about me. I have been called worse names – but not as wittily. How nice it is to make trouble.

I’ll be doing it again at the June debate. First, I will argue that both Labour and the Coalition governments have sneakily borrowed against the future earnings of the young to swell their coffers and keep taxes lower today.

Examples abound: tuition fee reforms, as I predicted in 2010, weigh down students with personal debts at the start of their lives while offering little long-term benefit to the public finances; Gordon Brown’s PFI investments have loaded the exchequer with decades of costly contracts in order to keep spending off the balance sheet; long-term public sector pensions liabilities are unfunded; revenue from Right to Buy has been spent on tax breaks; and gold reserves sold. There is an almost innumerable list of debts racked-up not during war but through peacetime profligacy. The effect is singular: future generations’ opportunity to shape their own futures is being curtailed because their taxes will be higher.

Second, I will accuse recent governments of cynically stoking the housing market. This may improve their electoral chances by making people feel richer, increase the value of their own expenses-funded London homes and raise the value of some of those publicly-owned banks, but it spells calamity for the next generation. And it may be driving their parents to distraction too.

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At the top of the market, the children of the wealthy are asking their parents for hundreds of thousands in mortgage down-payments that they could never save themselves, hurting both generations. Those from less affluent backgrounds are acquiring state-sponsored sub-prime mortgages which, if they go south, will cause a crash. Further down the income scale, millions more can’t afford to buy homes and are paying most of their income to buy-to-let speculators offering short-hold tenancies. Hundreds of thousands of young adults are attempting to raise families in cramped conditions, or else delaying marriage and childbirth far beyond previous generations.

Housing pressure is also keeping the poor in their place. More than 3.3 million people aged 20-34 are living with their parents. These young adults are caught in a vicious cycle: as secure work becomes scarce, they are unable to afford rent so cannot move to areas with jobs. Their parents, meanwhile, have to wait ever longer for their children to fly the nest.

Finally, I object to the manner in which governments spend money, condescendingly offering financial inducement to Britain’s numerous politically-active older generations to buy their votes. So state benefits have been cut for the poorest in our society, but a whole series of bumper allowances are still being paid to the wealthy elderly in addition to the state pension.

Knocking winter fuel payments to millionaire pensioners is just another example, some say, of the ‘politics of envy’. But the age of recipients cannot be the best measure for assessing their tax liabilities, access to services or state benefits. In any case, these inducements aren’t working which is why older voters are deserting the mainstream parties in droves.

Our politicians can only get away with their quick-fixes while we don’t question their long-term effects. But voters have started to cotton on, which may be one reason why James Forsyth detects an air of pessimism in Britain.

The counterargument, of course, is that young people have brought it on themselves; that something has gone horribly wrong with parenting; that a new generation ‘lacks grit’. Iain Duncan-Smith, even warned of an ‘X-factor generation’, ‘sitting at home, waiting to become TV stars’. But youth unemployment in Britain is still higher now than when he assumed office.

And that’s the point: the young may not be working but neither, apparently, are Duncan Smith’s policies. Still, it’s simpler to condescend to young people than to address their mounting problems.

The motion is: ‘Stop Whining Young People, You’ve Never Had It So Good’. I beg to oppose it.


The next Spectator debate: ‘Stop whining young people, you’ve never had it so good’ will feature Ed Howker, Paul Flatters, Katie Morley and Ruth Porter going head-to-head on 17 June. Click here to book tickets.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


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