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Total Opinion Debate

Is the baby-boomer generation selfish? Yes, says universities minister David Willetts, we lost sight of the way the contract between the generations binds societies together. No, says Michelle Mitchell, charity director of Age UK, the overwhelming majority of that generation is still making a valuable contribution to society

David Willetts MP says:

YesMybookThePinch:How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And How They Can Give it Back was published six months ago. The title sums up my argument that those lucky enough to be born between 1945 and 1965 are the biggest and richest generation that Britain has ever known – and that they attained this position at the expense of their children. Today, the baby-boomers are at the peak of their power and wealth. By virtue of their sheer demographic size, they have fashioned the world around them in a way that meets their housing, healthcare and financial needs. Their children, on the other hand, are finding it harder than ever to get on the housing ladder, find a secure job and settle down with a family.

This theme clearly struck a chord. The tables of Waterstone’s have since filled up with other books on the topic, including Francis Beckett’s What did the Baby-Boomers Ever Do For Us? and Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik. It’s good to be in such company – when I started making the case for the younger generation five years ago, it felt a rather lonely and eccentric battle. We in Britain just did not seem to care as much about unfairness between the generations as between classes or ethnic groups.

“A key reason for writing the book was my belief that people were unaware of just how much it matters which generation you are in”

Many baby-boomers felt I was questioning their motives or implying they were uniquely inconsiderate. Are they – or rather we – a particularly selfish generation? Some people think so. One of the books that followed mine was a manifesto for the last election by Neil Boorman entitled It’s All Their Fault. It states on the front page: “Do your parents love you? Of course they do. But it hasn’t stopped them robbing you blind.” The book argued that the boomers should be voted out of Parliament, with a few honourable exceptions – I survive his cull as a “self-hating boomer”!

A key reason for writing the book was my belief that people were unaware of just how much it matters which generation you are

P h o t o:

G e t t y I

m a g e s

12 | Total Politics | October 2010 :A F P/G e t t yI m a g e s to

P h o in. We had lost sight of the way the contract between the generations binds societies together: that was perhaps the most important reason why we failed to stick to the basic terms of that contract. If we think more clearly about the position of successive generations, that itself changes the agenda.

Another complaint came from those baby-boomers who had it tougher than many young people do today. It is true that some baby-boomers fared less well than others, even if their generation as a whole has done well. And, more generally, modern capitalism is unlikely to suddenly stop generating economic growth, so today’s young people can feel optimistic about that. But these do not affect the key point: the effects of climate change, for example, will cause massive adjustment costs so higher GDP may well not feed through to higher living standards. Even the recession hit younger people hardest – the employment rate of those aged over 50 continues to be at record levels, despite the downturn in the labour market. It is the employment rate of those under-25 that now stands at a record low.

As I am now the universities minister, I am aware that my generation had all the advantages of a free university education which is no longer available due to the rapid increase in student numbers. Given the fiscal crisis and the surplus demand for university places, any future university funding settlement is likely to expect more of graduates. But I am determined that the student experience must also improve. The biggest tragedy of Labour’s tuition fees is that they were introduced without any mechanism to make sure they produced a better deal for students, rather than leaking out into things like the unreformed pensions of baby-boomer academics.

The argument is not just about the exact costs of higher education though, but routes to adulthood.

They are much messier than they were when people found work, got married and bought a home earlier in life. This was perhaps inevitable as the economy changed shape. That is why I am convinced better information, advice and guidance is key.

Our plans to reduce the budget deficit are sometimes seen – even by those who recognise the necessity – as particularly hard on the young. But tackling the deficit is the single best way of helping them. It was the point of that great pre-election poster with the picture of the baby: “Dad’s nose. Mum’s eyes. Gordon Brown’s debt.” The economic consequences of not getting to grips with the deficit would hit the young generation hardest and longest.

Michelle Mitchell, Age UK says:

NoPerhapsit’sbecause I’m not lucky enough to have my parents alive that I notice the role that other people’s play. But whenever I go to the local one o’clock club with my two young children, at least a third of those with kids are grandparents, valiantly helping out with childcare, painting, playing in the sandpit and singing the Wheels on the Bus again, and again, and again. They often look slightly frazzled – though arguably no more than the parents – but are undoubtedly doing their bit. As it turns out my local play group is fairly reflective of the country as a whole, with one in three families in the UK reliant on grandparents for childcare, saving them an estimated £4bn a year. The contribution these grandparents are making to society cannot be underestimated, yet many are part of the baby-boomer generation increasingly labelled as “selfish”.

In recent months, much attention has been paid to Conservative minister David Willett’s book The

SOUNDING OFF Adrian Ramsay of the Green Party believes we can fight the economic and environmental crises at the same time

Central government cuts to local council budgets are already resulting in crucial services being put on the line. One example in Norfolk is the halving of staff numbers at our local Connexions service. The Green Party’s emphasis during the recession has been to argue that we can fight the economic and environmental crises together. We can create apprenticeships for young people in lowcarbon sectors. We can create jobs to retrofit houses with insulation and solar panels, build trains and trams, and localise our food system. The government has not taken this opportunity and cutting the number of careers advisers will take us in the wrong direction, severely hampering a local transition to a sustainable economy.

Caroline Spelman recently announced a review of waste policies in England. Again, on waste, we need to prioritise jobs and encourage smart, long-term decision-making that leads to lower carbon emissions.

Are council waste policies correct?

Using the Private Finance Initiative to build incinerators locks councils into decades-long contracts. Waste levels would need to remain high to keep feeding them. Money could be better spent on seed funding for social enterprises that pursue reuse and repair. We could prioritise spending on comprehensive kerbside recycling, composting programmes and mechanical and biological waste treatment plants. All of these methods are better for the environment and create far more local jobs.

Another area where cuts are already affecting green policies is in the transport budgets. Faced with a reduced transport budget, many councils are cutting back on new road safety measures, like pedestrian crossings and 20mph zones. As the Campaign for Better Transport said in June, we need local authorities to spend in ways that reduce the need to travel, help the local economy and reduce carbon emissions.

Millions of pounds could be saved by scrapping new road building projects around the country to increase spending on road safety, cycle routes and ensuring decent, affordable public transport – but the government is not getting its priorities right.

Adrian Ramsay is a councillor in Norwich and deputy leader of the Green Party

October 2010 | Total Politics | 13