Tag Archives: graduate_debt

Labour: young people are feckless. Lib Dems: no, they’re just dumb.

Labour and Lib Dem spokespeople have been competing on how best to insult young people struggling to pay for their own pensions this week.

Speaking at an Institute of Public Policy Research meeting, Pensions Minister James Purnell highlighted the fact that the number of young people saving for a pension has gone down in the past five years from 1-in-3 to 1-in-4. His explanation is simple:

“At the moment, young people are acting as if they expect to be able to fund a longer and longer retirement with less and less saving.”

Meanwhile Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable has been highlighting the huge levels of credit that young people are currently taking out:

“This research highlights the fact that there is a pressing need to help the young when it comes to financial understanding.

“All the signs point to a huge shift in the financial knowledge of young people now compared with their parents.

“The Government’s university tuition fees, high house prices and the aggressive marketing of credit are all contributing factors.

“Although there is some financial education and help for people when they are in difficulty, the focus should be on tackling this problem before it occurs.

“There should be a genuinely independent financial advice network to help people before financial hardship takes hold.”

To be fair on Vince, he does at least refer to contributing factors such as house prices and graduate debt, but he doesn’t propose doing anything about them – he magic bullet is simple more education. James Purnell doesn’t even go that far. His explanation are “Three Cs” – confidence, complexity and culture. All three may well be true, but that is to pretend that pensions are wholly divorced from everything else.

The reason a “live fast, die poor” culture has emerged is that credit and depending on parents is the norm for young people these days; it’s how you get on in life. Lecturing people about depending on too much credit is a little rich in a country where it is government policy to have every young person in hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt before they hit thirty.

And are we really expected to believe that the previous generation were any more careful with money than we are? Last time I looked, they spent their youth on drugs shagging anything that moved. The generation before, that grew up in the 1920s and lived through World War Two, certainly knew the meaning of saving for the future. I’ll take lectures from them, but not their profligate children.

Social mobility and housing

(apologies for the lack of posts on this thus far – I’ve been remarkably busy over the past few weeks and that is set to continue. But I’ll do my best to keep this updated when I can).

From what little feedback I’ve had about this website so far, a lot of people seem to think my main hobby horse is pensions. This is probably partly because of launching this site during the same week that the government announced their new pension plans.

In fact, personally I think pensions are a bit of a red herring. For a long time people have been awake to the emerging problem of what to do about the “pensions timebomb” and I think Adair Turner got the balance about right. If there is still a problem, it lies in the fact that financial pressures will force a number of people to opt-out of their second pension.

Where do those financial pressures come from? Rising graduate debt doesn’t exactly help, but if I were to pick out what I think is Public Enemy Number One it is simple: the lack of affordable housing.

Housing is a remarkably equal opportunities social issue. Well, lack of housing doesn’t seem to be affecting those at the very top of the tree, but for everyone else it is a problem, affecting both middle and working classes alike – worse, it is forcing the middle classes to scrounge off the working classes.

In London, the average house price is now £306,664. Back when I was at school, we were taught that you could only borrow up to 3.5 of your income. Under this quaint old rule of thumb, you have to be earning £87,618 p.a. in order to get a foothold on the housing ladder.

In reality of course, people have a broader range of options. There are graduate mortgages, where a bank essentially lends you more on the basis that your future earnings are set to increase. If you are a “key worker” you can get some support from the government. A growing number of more entrepreneurial people are resorting to buy to let. In essence, if you can’t afford to live in the area where you work (common in London), buy a property somewhere else and live off the rental income. This in turn of course means that the pressures on London property prices essentially seep out across the rest of the country, exacerbating the problem.

For most people however, it means getting a top up from their parents or other relatives. That’s if they have parents/relatives who can afford it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that means that how well you are likely to be able to get on is going to be increasingly dependent on your social background.

In short, the options available to young people attempting to get some long term security are some combination of scrimp and save, pass the problem onto someone else and depend on inherited wealth. Is it no wonder that social mobility has taken a nose dive?

The papers have been rife over the last few days about a new study published by the Sutton Trust about how professional careers are now dominated by public school educated people. Lots of theories have been floating about as to why this is in an era where class is generally perceived to no longer be particularly relevant. Once again, much of this boils down to housing. As Will Hutton writes:

Another factor is that London has become more expensive and the growth in starter salaries has not kept pace. Having parents who can support you early in your career is more crucial. London house prices prop up the middle class’s closed shop as effectively as independent schools.

I don’t think you can underestimate this factor. Many professions – from law to journalism to party politics – are propped up by an internship system that relies on the fact that people are prepared to work for free in the expectation that it will get you a rung on the ladder. The think tank “sector” (such as it is) that I work in is incredibly nepotistic and extremely dependent on unpaid interns. Even for a tiny organisation like the one I work for, competition for places is considerable. We’re all too aware that getting an internship gives people a major advantage in terms of getting paid work in the sector, yet the only people who can afford to take an internship tend to have comfortably off and understanding parents. It’s a conspiracy of convenience that quietly and surely gives the comparatively wealthy a clear advantage regardless of talent.
The mass expansion of education was supposed to create a more level playing field but in fact the opposite has happened – because so many more people have degrees now, employers need other ways to differentiate potential applicants. Bizarrely, we’ve created a system whereby young people are forced to get themselves into tens of thousands of pounds of debt for a degree that is worth far less than its free equivalent 30 years ago (John Harris has some interesting related statistics here: the argument for tuition fees was always that graduates would earn, on average £400,000 more over their working life; in fact, an arts grad can expect to earn £22,000 more).

To cut a long story short, lack of housing is starting to have a severely detrimental effect on social mobility. Far from realising the Eighties dream of everyone being a homeowner, what is instead happening is that we are creating a landed middle class with almost impenetrable power over an unlanded underclass. While this is good for those families who got on the housing ladder over the past couple of decades, it’s bad news for everyone else and it’s dreadful news for the economy.

So, what’s to be done? Unfortunately, the problem is not as simple as “build more houses.” No developer wants to build affordable housing when they can make vastly more money on more expensive housing for the same cost. Speculation has a stranglehold over the property market – indeed, as a society we worship this fact. That speculation leads to over-inflated housing costs and an artificial limitation of the supply of available land. In short, developers are quite happy to sit on land and wait until the price is right. But land is not capital, which loses value over time. Indeed, sitting on land can be a very profitable business indeed.

We have to end this nonsense. The simplest mechanism I have come across for doing this is an annual tax on land values. This tax would be levied on landowners whether the land was in development or not; sitting on land would cost and thus the supply would be much larger. And because land values are entirely based on external factors such as accessibility to public services and transport links (as opposed to the capital costs of property such as bricks and mortar or double glazing), it is a virtuous tax as the money raised is created by society and not the landowner in any case. What’s more, the money raised from it could replace taxation elsewhere. The most obvious candidate is council tax, but most people agree that land value taxation could raise much more than that.

The alternative? Well, we can sit back and watch the concept of a dynamic, meritocratic society go down the toilet, or we can spend billions of pounds of taxpayers money enriching the very people who are sitting on land and causing the problem in the first place. I’m open to other ideas, but I haven’t heard anything better.

Getting the ball rolling

I’ve been sitting on the url handsoffourfuture.org.uk for a couple of months now, but work pressures have made it very difficult to get things moving.

I’ve been finally spurred into action for two reasons: firstly, Andrew Rawnsley’s article in the Observer this Sunday on the subject of Generational Equity is a clear sign that this issue is increasingly hitting its head against the mainstream. Rawnsley’s namecheck of Tory MP David Willetts suggests that at least he is starting to take these issues on board.Secondly, rumours have been circulating that my own party, the Lib Dems, are on the verge of missing a golden opportunity of taking the initiative on this area with its latest Tax Commission. The Commission is apparently set to water down its proposals for a “Progressive Property Tax” which was to signal a major shift in the burden of taxation away from low income earners and onto property owners.

Frankly, no major party in the UK is tacklingly generational equity in a meaningful way, and why should they when the over-50s are more likely to vote and are more numerous than ever before? What’s more, the old are organised in a way that the young are not. They have their own lobbying groups – Help the Aged, Age Concern, Saga, et al – and they have perfected the whine of the perpetual underdog. For a more perfect example of this, look no further than the campaign against Council Tax. Fixed income pensioners don’t even pay it, and yet it is presented as a social justice issue.

The young are predominently creating the wealth in the UK, and yet they are being stung by the quadruple-whammy of graduate debt, sky-high property values, pensions and income tax. And that’s not counting an uncertain future due to climate change and the fact that the under-20s have been institutionally demonised by a state which has invented the term “anti-social behaviour” as a new tool for keeping the public in a constant state of anxiety. It is time to get our shit together.

This website is intended as a contribution to the debate and as a catalyst for organisation. Although, as editor, I’m a Lib Dem, I’m hoping it will evolve into a truly cross-party initiative (while I’d like to see my own party take a lead on this issue, I’m not convinced it will until the issue is more high profile). If you’re interested then bookmark this page and pay a visit to the accompanying forum.