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The war against the young

24 June 2012

2:30 PM

24 June 2012

2:30 PM

At the time of the student protests, I laid out in the Observer the demographic facts that push unscrupulous politicians into picking on the young.

Their political vulnerability is the best explanation for the regularity with which the coalition assaults their interests, I said. In democracies, politicians worry about those who vote and a majority of the young do not. Ipsos MORI estimated that only 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds and only 55% of 25 to 30-year-olds voted in the 2010 election. By contrast, 73% of 55 to 64-year-olds and 76% of those aged 65 or over turned out:

In the mid-20th century, the customary political apathy of youth did not matter overmuch. Electorates split on class lines. If a Labour-supporting 19-year-old could not be bothered to vote, a 59-year-old man, who shared his interests, could. Varying turnout levels between the generations balanced out. Now no sharp-eyed political operator can miss the mass of baby boomers stomping on all around, as they lumber like some great, grey elephant towards the grave. The baby boomers have interests of their own. More importantly, they have the power to hurt politicians who ignore them.

We ought to remember the milestone Britain passed in 2009. The Office for National Statistics reported that 24.5 million 16 to 44-year-olds, who were likely to be in work or getting ready to work, had been overtaken as a proportion of the population for the first time in our history. They were now outnumbered by 25.7 million aged 45 years and above, who were starting to think about retirement or had retired. We now have twice as many pensioners (12 million) as 18 to 24-years-olds (5.9 million).

In these circumstances, whacking up tuition fees for students, withdrawing child tax credits for young, poorish parents, withdrawing child benefits for richish parents all seem like practical politics. Means testing bus passes, winter fuel allowances and free television allowances for the elderly all seem taboo. Of all the austerity measures the coalition has imposed only the granny tax was targeted at the elderly – and that only brought pensioner tax allowances into line with everyone else’s.

I have always been reluctant to acknowledge intergenerational conflict. A 64-year-old ex-miner coughing up his guts in a Doncaster council flat is unlikely to believe that he is a member of the &”lucky” baby boomer generation. You cannot plausibly describe the undergraduate son of a banker as accursed because he was born into the &”jilted generation”. Class trumps age. Or so I used to think. The prime minister’s announcement today that he wants to remove the rights to housing benefit for the under-25s has made me reconsider.

The excellent Max Dunbar, one of the best young writers I know, takes you through the arguments against:

 Like many welfare reform ideas it sounds good at first glance – why should an unemployed person get a free house when some working people have to live at home? A further moment’s thought reveals potential problems with the idea, that may cost us more in the long term. With something like five people chasing every vacancy it’s not necessarily the claimant’s fault if s/he cannot find work. The claimant could have lost a job through no fault of their own, such as redundancy or sickness. The policy will disproportionately affect working class people, whose parents maybe can’t afford to keep them living at home, or don’t want them living at home. It is a policy aimed at dividing the young against each other. Its effects will be homelessness, and the cramming of yet more people into overcrowded social homes.

Tuition fees, workfare, and now discriminatory benefit changes – why does the government encourage intergenerational warfare? Most political books are dated even by publication, but the Malik/Howker Jilted Generation argument just gets stronger by the day. This is a country where the growing numbers of young people sleeping on streets attract little or no comment, and a modest tax on the allowances of better-off pensioners triggers front pages of confected outrage.

This new housing benefit idea is particularly bad because it goes against not just the letter, but the actual spirit, of welfare reform. It’s not about encouraging independence. All it does is transfer dependency to the family instead of the state.

I have a further objection. I am sorry to be brutal, but there is no way of phrasing it delicately: the young are our future and the old are our burden.  It is bad enough that millions are finding their aspirations thwarted, and their ability to not only better themselves but create the wealth society needs to fund pensions stymied. But if these vindictive policies carry on, Britain will become like Ireland. Bright young people will leave. And then who will my generation of babyboomers have to look after us.

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