In recent months, I’ve noticed a marked increase in media stories about intergenerational equity, pointing out that young people today are up to their eyeballs in debt and struggling to get onto the housing ladder. I suspected there would be a backlash against this, and it would appear that the Observer has started a rearguard action. Apparently we are to believe that Baby Boomers are “broke, ailing and anxious” while Mary Riddell wants us to know that “not everyone can grow old gracefully“. The implication of both these stories is clear: older people need big cash payouts from their kids, and fast.
Some of this stuff stretches credulity. The first story is based around a book called “The Maturing Marketplace: Buying Habits of Baby Boomers and their Parents” by Professor George Moschis. He claims that “boomers are not as financially well-off as their parents; boomers are in worse health than previous generations were at the same age.” This is appears to go against almost everything we know about demographic trends, which indicate that people are increasingly living longer. If Moschis is correct, surely we should have amassed evidence by now to indicate a reversal of this effect, or at least a dramatic levelling off? Or has some new phenomenon emerged that I was previously unaware of, in which poor people in poor health live into their hundreds en masse? Clearly we will have to read the book to find out; the Observer is only interested in the scare story.
Reading between the lines, the pattern that appears to be emerging is that the issue is less that Baby Boomers are deprived compared to their parents, but that they have squandered the opportunities that many of their parents literally died to bring them. They aren’t financially insecure because they lacked opportunities, but because “they have enjoyed spending their money more than saving it” (I still don’t see how this squares with the amount of property owned by Boomers). They eat poorly due to over-indulgence, not malnutrition. They live stressed, vain existences and are terrified about the prospect of old age.
The problem with this story, and Mary Riddell’s piece, is that it doesn’t seem to be telling us anything particularly new, but is nudging us to draw startlingly bad conclusions. We’re supposed to have thought that there is no such thing as geriatric poverty. Has anyone ever said that? The conclusion we are invited to draw is that the young must bail out the young. Mary Riddell smugly points out that “more than 40 per cent of the electorate is over 50,” clearly implying that if the young don’t give it away, the old will simply vote in a government that will take it from us. But the fact of the matter is that while geriatric poverty exists, so, undeniably, does geriatric wealth. Yet Mary Riddell is also quick to point out the so-called scandal that anyone with more than Â£21,000 in assets is forced to pay for their own social care. Presumably she would prefer it if their wealth could just sit there growing, untouched, while their every whim is cared for by the state.
Dig a little deeper and you often find that the people who shout loudest about pensioner poverty (including, sadly, the Lib Dems in the last General Election), are in fact set on tax breaks and handouts which disproportionately benefit pensioners in a much more stable position. Free nursing care? Of no benefit whatsoever to poor pensioners. Local Income Tax? Ditto. Citizen’s pension? Limited. Yet the cost of such proposals have the effect of making it harder for the next generation to save or to acquire assets, leading to more dependent, asset-poor pensioners in the longer run. Meanwhile the untaxed assets of pensioners that we dare not touch eventually passes down to their children, creating an entrenched them-and-us society of social immobility and an elite able to lord it over an emerging serfdom. We are sliding back into feudalism.
It is precisely this sort of monstrous short-termism that Prof Moschis appears to associate with the Baby Boomers, so don’t expect any great change any time soon. The challenge is for the next generation to develop a wider consciousness. Linked to that is an awareness that our parents appear to lack of the fact that we will get old at some point, and that we need to be prepared – both financially and spiritually.
That spirituality is the key factor. You don’t have to be religious to recognise the limits of materialism (indeed you only have to look around yourself to see that organised religion is riddled with materialism itself). If we are going to survive the 21st century, we are going to need to replace the cult of the individual with a renewed emphasis on co-dependency. It’s anyone’s guess how we do it though.