The generation game: how society loads the dice against the young

A student protests over tuition fees in 2012. Karel Prinsloo/EPA

The UK’s July budget, regarded by some as an outright attack on the young, prompted some timely discussion on the question of intergenerational justice. Among other things, George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer, has abolished housing benefit for under-21s, scrapped maintenance grants for the poorest students, and locked under-25s out of a new living wage.

This final measure was greeted memorably in the House of Commons by the fist-pumping of Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary.

At the same time, the latest findings of the Intergenerational Foundation highlighted a starkly widening gap in its fairness index between those under 30 and those over 60. In just the last five years, they report a 10% deterioration in the prospects of younger generations relative to older generations across a range of measures including education, income, housing and health.

Responding to the report, former World Bank economist Lawrence Kotlikoff called intergenerational inequity the moral issue of the day, and accused the UK of engaging in “fiscal, educational, health and environmental child abuse”.

In June, the Centre for Policy Studies issued a report detailing a bleak outlook for Generation Y (those born between around 1980 and 2000), who will have to pick up the tab for apocalyptic levels of national debt incurred by baby-boomer overspending. The report’s author, Michael Johnson, said:

Baby-boomers have become masters at perpetrating intergenerational injustice, by making vast unfunded promises to themselves, notably in respect of pensions. Indeed, such is their scale that if the UK were accounted for as a public company, it would be bust.

The injustice and the urgency of the issue seems obvious, but the want of political will to address this suggests that we still don’t know how to think well about the generation game.

The problem of generations

In 1923, the Hungarian-born sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote an essay called The problem of generations, which points us helpfully to some of the structural and sociological features of the relationships between young and old.

Mannheim carefully observed the tension involved in the continuous process of transitioning from generation to generation, a phenomenon based ultimately on the biological rhythm of birth and death. While former participants in what Mannheim calls the “cultural process” are constantly disappearing in death, new ones are constantly emerging through birth into their own time of life.

This phenomenon creates the responsibility to continually transmit the accumulated cultural heritage to new generations. However, tensions arise as young people appropriate that heritage, but want to interpret the world afresh and shape it differently. Mannheim observes that younger generations tend to be “more dramatically aware of a process of destabilisation and take sides in it” while “the older generation cling to the reorientation that had been the drama of their youth.”

It seems older generations have become much better at clinging on. Only recently, for instance, has 87-year-old Bruce Forsyth retired from his regular prime-time slot on Saturday night television. If there is a generation game, didn’t he do well?

Nice to see you, to see you nice.

Fixing the future against the young

There are powerful establishment narratives that discourage the destabilising political agency of the young, not least a creeping broad-brush rhetoric around “extremist” views and so-called British values. But an especially effective modern mechanism of holding new generations in thrall to the old is to make the young pay a fare for their futures.

The chancellor’s recent policy announcements only advance on the norms of a society that has quickly built the accumulation of enormous personal debt into securing the advantages attained so cheaply by previous generations, such as housing and education. You can have your cultural heritage, only now you’re going to have to pay for it. When older generations can impoverish or indebt young people swiftly and heavily enough for the advantages they are schooled to covet, their behaviours can be better disciplined to preserve the stability of a prevailing culture and pacify the threat of the new.

But Mannheim also shows us that the great virtue of the young is that they make fresh starts possible. Being open to the destabilising effect of new generations “facilitates re-evaluation of our inventory and teaches us both to forget that which is no longer useful and to covet that which has yet to be won.”

The stability that is so prized and clung to by older generations cannot last forever, and our social future requires the kind of radical re-evaluation that only the young can effect. But while figures like the young Scottish National Party MP Mhairi Black may offer a glimmer of hope, too many young people are being offered little more to covet than a living wage and the payment of their debts.

This article is part of a series on What’s next for the baby boomers.