Representatives of the 1% need to stop trying to reduce the demographic challenges facing British society to a
question of young versus old, writes PAUL DONOVAN
T HE Conservative peer Baron David Willetts was recently given the freedom of BBC Radio 4 to have another go at peddling his intergenerational conflict line.
The programme was part of the thought-provoking New World series, with this edition looking at the demographic challenges facing the world. Looking at the British situation, Willetts made out his old argument that young people are being denied due to the largesse of past generations — specifically the baby boomers, who had it all.
What is more, they continue to thrive with generous pension provision and universal benefits, like winter fuel allowances, travel concessions and free TV licences.
Willetts believes that the elderly must give these things up to help the younger generation. He boldly stated that the “triplelock” on the state pension — which guarantees that pensions rise at the same rate as average earnings, the consumer price index, or 2.5 per cent, whichever is the highest — cannot be afforded anymore.
He also applied the cost argument to universal benefits. Willetts and supporters of this intergenerational argument go on to say that with people living longer, they should be forced to work longer and retire later.
The entire argument is flawed on many levels. First, there are poor pensioners, as well as poor students.
Reducing the argument to “younger people don’t have houses, decent jobs and free education because the older people have it all” is simply wrong.
The reality is that with 1 per cent of the world’s population holding much of the wealth, the remaining 99 per cent is forced to struggle on whatever is left.
This division cuts across demographic boundaries, affecting both old and young.
It is interesting that it is usually people like Willetts, Iain Duncan Smith, former pensions minster Ros Altmann and members of the parliamentary work and pensions committee, who tend to be part of the 1 per cent and argue that the “triple-lock” and universal benefits cannot be afforded.
To argue that decent pensions and state welfare can no longer be afforded in the sixth largest economy in the word is frankly absurd. The underlying agenda of this group seems to be that people are mainly here to serve their class.
This means working longer for less and ideally dying in work without drawing a pension at all.
Then the 1 per cent can continue to live comfortably supported by ordinary working people. Notably, the age for retirement is edging up toward 70 — the place where it started when the state pension was introduced in 1911.
The argument about people living longer is also questionable. Yes, the baby boomer generation may be living longer than previous generations but what of those who come after?
Their generations were brought up on fast food and already boast record levels of obesity. There is also the growing focus on sedentary work, based around computers for increasing numbers of people.
Add in the wide geographical differences in life expectancy — with someone living in Middlesbrough living a much shorter life than a resident of Kensington — and the idea that everyone is living longer is, to put it mildly, questionable.
The problem with Willetts and others who constantly seem to try to ferment this intergenerational conflict is that they bring the debate down to a race to the bottom.
One group of society is set against another — this time young versus old. The present government are masters of the divide and rule approach — setting worker against benefit claimant, indigenous against migrant and the “deserving” against “undeserving” poor.
Intergenerational solidarity is what is required in the face of those who seek to divide young and old. It should be clear that in most cases the pensioners that Willetts and co seek to penalise are the grandparents of the youngsters struggling for education and housing.
Pensions and universal benefits can be afforded for the elderly and everyone else. Students should have free education, young people should have houses; all these things are achievable with a little realigning of society.
Of course, in order to pay for such a society those from the 1 per cent might just have to part with a bit of their huge largesse. But that is the price to be paid for a more stable, happy and secure world.