Opinion: Intergenerational Fairness: Are we really building a fair future for our young people?

The challenges that young people face today are considerably different to what the previous generations faced. The baby boomers spent much of their lives enjoying a resilient and rewarding economy, with prospects of owning a house regarded as being the norm.

These days, as a young person, it’s not even a realistic goal, let alone normal. Between 2001 and 2011, house prices rose three times faster than wages. As a double whammy, we saw the recession hit wages and young people’s employment prospects particularly hard. Whilst unemployment is dropping, too many of us know young people settling for part-time work, zero-hours contracts and underemployment because they know that some work is better than none.

With these factors in mind, it is no surprise that the Office for National Statistics has revealed that 1 in 4 young people (aged 20 – 34) are still sharing their homes with their parents. Quite simply, we are an anchored generation, without the strength or ability to reach the surface for air.

But there are other barriers. We face a higher education crisis. I use the term crisis because it is becoming clearer by the day that the government is waking up to the fact that its current funding model is unsustainable, due to many debts never being repaid. Thankfully, campaigners have managed to fight off the latest quick-fix funding solution, the privatisation of student loans, announced by Vince Cable recently in response to a question I put to him at Social Liberal Forum conference. This would have once been seen as a niche issue, however a huge proportion of young people are now opting to access higher education, meaning that we can no longer treat it as such.

Whilst previous generation enjoyed a free education, the Sutton Trust revealed that current graduates will be saddled with enough debt that their repayments will be the equivalent to an extra 6p income tax. This would be the case for middle earners into their 50s, a time when many will already be struggling, particularly if they have families to look after.

I do not resent the elderly. They deserve help from the state. I don’t resent free bus passes, free TV license, the winter fuel allowance and pensions that ensure they retire in dignity. What I do resent is the notion that my generation is less deserving of a fair future. That somehow we alone should be left, unequipped, to navigate tough economic conditions set by the generation that caused this mess.

At its heart, intergenerational fairness is about taking into account future generations when making policy. For a sustainable future, economically AND environmentally, this must always be at the heart of the Liberal Democrats – inside and outside of government.

 

* Joshua Dixon is a member of the Liberal Democrats' Federal Executive writing in a personal capacity.

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39 Comments

  • Simon McGrath 30th Jul '14 - 1:52pm

    “. Thankfully, campaigners have managed to fight off the latest quick-fix funding solution, the privatisation of student loans”
    can you explain why this is good news. Given that the terms can’t be changed what difference does it make who owns the loans ?

  • David Evershed 30th Jul '14 - 1:54pm

    The biggest injustice for today’s young gereration is that the older generation (via the government) is borrowing at an unsustainable level to avoid cut backs in public services or increasing taxes.

    As today’s young generation get older they will have to pay back the debt or pay a high interest rate to refinance it.

    So for older people it is – live now, let the young pay later.

  • Joshua Dixon 30th Jul '14 - 1:55pm

    Hello all! I’m looking to hopefully write a follow up piece to this in future regarding some of the “solutions” to the problem that is posed here. So it would be interesting to hear what some of you think.

  • Joshua Dixon 30th Jul '14 - 1:58pm

    Simon – The thinking behind the loan sell off was to plug spending black holes in the treasury. The reason using the sell off of the loan book was a terrible way to do this is because it is a SHORT TERM solution to a very much LONG TERM problem.

    Secondly, I do not like the idea of graduates subsidising private company profits in the knowledge that none of that extra money collected will go into the funding of education. There are many reasons why it was a terrible idea besides the retrospective change in the interest rates (despite a lot of research and work done by think tanks suggesting that it was still quite likely to happen).

  • Peter Hayes 30th Jul '14 - 2:08pm

    So many myths here. Of the baby boomer generation about 20% went to grammar school and perhaps 2/3 of them went on to university or teacher training some got good apprenticeships but the majority learned as best they could on the job. I managed to get a mortgage on a 1 bed flat and only just survived when interest rates went well over 10%. My current partner could not get a mortgage as, being female, she needed a male guarantor, which her father could or would not do. There were two recessions when people lost their homes. My parents owned their own home, sold it to move into sheltered accommodation and ended up using the majority of the proceeds to pay for more intensive care. Of course a minority of baby boomers did well but it was a minority.

  • Joshua Dixon 30th Jul '14 - 2:11pm

    I don’t think the basic comparisons I’ve put forward are “myths”. Whether you like it or not, my generation is going to be far more held back than previous ones. My piece was not one to say “you all had it easy!”, more that many did have it a lot easier than we do now.

  • paul barker 30th Jul '14 - 2:46pm

    A lot of the advantages of the Boomers derve from long term Economic cycles which seem to last about 2 generations. Alternate generations get high or low Unemployment, optimism or pessimism, mostly luck. Todays Teenagers have the double advantage of growing up in a period of pessimism & moving into adulthood just as those assumptions are overturned.

  • Daniel Henry 30th Jul '14 - 3:15pm

    I’d say that other than housing, and possibly pensions, our generation pretty much has it better in every way.

    I don’t agree so much on student loans.
    The reason why we have the loan system is because the old grant model only allowed for 10-20% to attend. Now we want more people attending, the loan system is perhaps the best way to fund it.

    Although graduates will effectively pay it back in the form of extra tax, before 1988 the tax rates were much higher instead.

    I think so long as we can successfully tackle the challenges of housing, inequality and climate change, our generation will be alright.

  • Joshua Dixon 30th Jul '14 - 4:02pm

    Apart from higher education (agree to disagree on this one!), I think you’re right Daniel. The problem is politicians aren’t taking the challenge particularly seriously at the moment!

  • Bill le Breton 30th Jul '14 - 6:50pm

    Here’s another point of view – much more hopeful.
    http://online.barrons.com/news/articles/SB50001424052748703889404578440972842742076

    Your lives are going to be extraordinary. Your life chances will tower above those of any previous generation on this planet. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you share those opportunities as widely as possible with others. There will be more than enough to go round.

  • Joshua Dixon 30th Jul '14 - 7:01pm

    Where’s my house then, Bill? Still need to see it

  • Kevin McNamara 30th Jul '14 - 7:08pm

    Sorry but so many of the responses here are fact-free. There isn’t really any current means for optimism when demand for housing consistently outstrips production, and prices of houses wages. That is before you address any other point in Josh’s article.

    I might live a lot longer, Bill, but that’s just as well since I currently spend 20% of my wages to lodge in someone’s room because my wages would probably allow me the mortgage on a small shed.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Jul '14 - 8:26pm

    We are not building a fair future for our young people, partly due to excessive borrowing, as David Evershed says, but also because of the artificial asset pumping going on across the world. This isn’t just bad for first time house buyers, price to earning ratios for stocks are well above what they should be, but people keep buying them because the central banks promise to keep giving money to them. It’s a disaster and definitely not the free market.

    Regular readers will know I support a small increase in interest rates, but those who don’t should at least support the cheap money going to other sources, rather than the stock-market and housing market. This is what Elizabeth Warren is doing in the US right now – asking why students can’t get loans at the same rate as banks.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 30th Jul '14 - 11:08pm

    Interesting piece Josh.

    I agree that this is an area that has been under-analysed and one as a party we need to look at.

    With student loan repayments, the young face some of the highest marginal tax rates of anyone, despite earning relatively little and having to spend significantly more on e.g. housing.

    This is also a key justification for deficit reduction, given that all government borrowing, as Vince Cable has said many times, is essentially deferred taxation.

    But on more macro scale I think Bill is right to inject some optimism. The opportunities open to this and future generations as a result of economic development and technical progress are phenomenal.

  • Jenny Barnes 31st Jul '14 - 8:35am

    While the 0.1% make off with the cake, they encourage everyone else to fight for the crumbs. The real inequality is between the elite who own most of the wealth and income and everyone else. Which is increasing. Marketisation is clearly not working (except for the profiteers).

  • The basic problem is that young people might complain (rightly) about this unfairness, but just one day in every five years, they can’t actually be bothered to go out and vote for parties that might be able to help them.

    We had loads of potential young supporters who said they might vote for us in 2010, but didn’t. As a result, we ended up with very few MPs. Think how much greater our prospects of putting our tuition fees policy might have been had we had 90-100 MPs than with the puny 57 we ended up with.

    “Whilst previous generation enjoyed a free education, the Sutton Trust revealed that current graduates will be saddled with enough debt that their repayments will be the equivalent to an extra 6p income tax. ”

    There is a huge problem with this point. Basically anyone who doesn’t want fees says tuition should be paid for out of “taxation generally”. Given that “taxation generally” falls way short of what is needed to fund public spending already, this alternative scenario implies much higher taxes. Who are those taxes going to fall on? Higher earners. Who are higher earners? Mostly university graduates.

    Whichever way you slice it, the resources have to be found from somewhere. There is no pot of free money lying around. And unless young people motivate themselves to get out and vote, is it any wonder that the interests of those who do vote, the older generation, are prioritised above those of others who can’t be bothered?

  • Bill le Breton 31st Jul '14 - 9:54am

    Joshua starts his piece, “The challenges that young people face today are considerably different to what the previous generations faced. The baby boomers spent much of their lives enjoying a resilient and rewarding economy, with prospects of owning a house regarded as being the norm.”

    That is a fiction. It may of course be true of Generation X … and there are stats to suggest that Generation X decided not to ‘buy’ a home in their twenties, but to wait , and doing a lot more consuming first.

    Baby boomers lived through more recessions than those who grew up and spent their teens and twenties in a period known as the Great Moderation.

    We all spent our time sleeping on the floors of friends. Renting was the norm. Eviction relatively easy until the 80s. You may think that it was a one way bet buying a house, but it didn’t look that way at the time.

    I got into politics by being an active campaigner for Shelter in my community. That was before Stephen Ross’ homeless persons act gave LAs a duty to rehouse. Before then Cathy (Come Home)was on the streets or in a hostel. And she and her fellow citizens stayed there until Stephen Ross’s historic legislation.

    As Liberals we campaigned locally to take control of the local council (still able to award homes on the basis of personal recommnedations from Councillors!!!!). When we gained a majority in 1979 Among other things brought in a points system. Increased the housing budget and started major and interesting housing projects. We did early let to buy and stair casing/equity sharing schemes. All in the Eighties in a so called ‘backwater’.

    I really don’t think stoking up intergenerational conflict is the right approach. I have every sympathy for those struggling to find secure accommodation … and that comes from the empathy of having direct experience.

    So, get campaigning on this issue.

    If you read that article I linked to above (admittedly on the US situation) you will see that Generation Y or the Millennials are going to be another dominant generation as they mature and will become a dominant economic force. Their great attribute is their ‘assuredness’. They just get on and do things. I admire them for that and I shall watch in awe as they use their time on this planet.

    I think they will make huge quantities of life chances and not just for themselves, not just because of the technology, but because of that attitude.

    Of course if you are a politician that wants to win votes by talking up problems and capturing power, then, that’s what Labour did. It’s creating dependency. And it is actually robbing people of their power and potential. It’s actually pretty unMillennial.

  • Joshua Dixon 31st Jul '14 - 10:02am

    “The basic problem is that young people might complain (rightly) about this unfairness, but just one day in every five years, they can’t actually be bothered to go out and vote for parties that might be able to help them.”

    RC – What an utterly ridiculous point. You think after years of young people being sidetracked, demoralised and ignored by politicians they would actually want to go out and then vote for them? Have you ever even canvassed a young person before?! You’ll find that they, often more than any other age group, are very much engaged and enlightened on a number of issues. They have opinions and are not afraid to share them. Regardless of people’s views on fees (which I can see is rather diverse here!), the pledge breaking by our party leadership will now be symbolic for young people for years to come. We were the one party that actually dared to put young people first in spending priorities and we completely betrayed them for the sake of being the “grown up party of government”.

    Some people’s attitudes towards young people genuinely concern me.

  • Daniel Henry 31st Jul '14 - 12:19pm

    I share Bill’s view.

    Whatever challenges we face in terms of housing, inequality, climate change, resources, etc, I think we’ve been more than compensated with the incredible resources we’ve been provided to tackle them.

    Our education, modern technology, the internet, decades of improvements to institutions, living standards, political processes, etc.

    Rightly we keep raising the bar and pushing for better, but I think it would be naive to dismiss all the work and progress that has been done by generations before us. Mistakes have been made, but given that they’re only human, I’d say that the generations before us have by and large done a great job.

  • Daniel Henry 31st Jul '14 - 12:22pm

    Bill, George quite rightly pointed to some of the issues that the “baby boomers” hadn’t managed to tackle, but the nature of problems is that the ones that aren’t solved stay noticable, while the ones that are successfully solved can be quickly forgotten about.

    To help us with some perspective, can you list some problems that we dealt with so effectively that most of us now take the issue for granted and aren’t even aware that there was a problem?

    Of the top of my head I can think of the cold war, the IRA, air and river polution…

  • Daniel Henry 31st Jul '14 - 12:23pm

    (I should say “a few more” – you already gave some good examples on housing and shelter)

  • Speaking as a boomer I think George Potter has a better view of the situation. As a semi-apology to George, I feel that ‘we boomers’, just didn’t understand the exponential function, when we designed stuff such as the NHS and the state pension system. We boomers also deluded ourselves into believing that we had solved many problems when we had simply deferred them or moved them. For example, we didn’t have such things as ‘pea souper’ smog hanging over our cities anymore, and our rivers are much cleaner now. Few seem to grasp the connection that over the same period of cleaning up our air and environment, a period of 40 years, we exported our manufacturing and heavy industries East, so we get them to burn our carbon for us, thus leaving our filth, and smog in Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines India and China.
    ‘.. Thank you very much East Asia,…. just keep sending us the smart phones and flat screen TV’s,… and,….. errrr,…. you just keep the carbon and crap. ..’
    So we boomers tore open the doors of the MAERSK shipping containers from the East, and lapped up the goodies like some demented ‘cargo cult’, with a foolish view that life could always be thus, giving us more and more and more, year on year, and if we did ever hit an obstacle, then *someone* or *some technology* would just work things out.
    I seriously wish young people well, but I do wish that more of them would lift their heads away from those tiny screens once in a while, because if they don’t, they too, like us boomers, will fall seduced by the irrational idea that ‘finite resources’, and ‘finite planet’, are merely problems waiting for the right App?

  • Speaking as someone who was born in 53 I seem to remember for decades we paid for bills from world wars.

    It’s hard to say older people spoilt things, we got told don’t eat eggs eat eggs, the earths flat no it’s not, we will take NIS and that will pay for NHS and pensions.

    Fwiw I do think the young are having a tough time and I fail to see how it’s better having pensioners working than the young. A few things I envy the young for ending education at 21 not 15, gap years, foreign travel should they not be worried about global warming and last but not least the internet where they have a voice

  • “Are we really building a fair future for our young people?

    Clearly not. Housing along shows that. Also, higher education is usually taken as a synonym for university although a clear majority will never go to university. That’s another major policy failure that dates back decades but it doesn’t directly affect the elite so it’s not generally deemed important. I beg to differ.

    The core failure is that the economy – it simply isn’t working properly although the scale of dysfunction is masked to a large extent by financial engineering and ballooning debt. When the economic cake isn’t growing it’s inevitable that a fortunate few – mainly the better connected which broadly means the older and wealthier – will manage to hang on to a disproportionate share so the pain becomes concentrated in the younger and poorer. In other words, economic failure shows up as intergenerational unfairness.

    I share with Bill le Breton and others excitement about the scientific and technical advances we are experiencing but those are ultimately distinct from the political choices. Our politics has created institutional failures that hobble the economy. This should be an open goal for liberals but unfortunately the Lib Dems have their own institutional failings that keep the party as a minor irritant to the system rather that making it a major challenger to the failed establishment.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jul '14 - 3:46pm

    Joshua Dixon

    Whilst previous generation enjoyed a free education, the Sutton Trust revealed that current graduates will be saddled with enough debt that their repayments will be the equivalent to an extra 6p income tax.

    Once again we have an argument based on the assumption that before the current tuition fee system was introduced education was paid for by shaking a magic money tree. Or perhaps that the increased tuition fees really are going straight into lecturer’s pockets. Well I know the latter is not the case, I’m a university lecturer, and my salary did not go up when the new tuition fee system was introduced, it continued on its downward slide once inflation is taken into account.

    Higher education was not previously paid for by shacking a magic money tree, it was paid for out of taxes. The student loan system has replaced the taxes. So, what would have been paid by higher taxes is now paid by student loan repayment. To get the more correct figure, you need to factor in the consequent reduction in taxes. It doesn’t entirely balance, since taxes are paid by all taxpayers, whereas student loan repayments are paid only by recent graduates. So those who are already graduates benefit from having had taxpayer funded higher education, and benefit also by not having to pay taxes to fund current higher education.

    You have a much bigger point with housing. But, of course, you will also get the benefit of much higher inheritances coming from much higher house prices. That is, assuming you chose your parents wisely, and they don’t live too long. If you REALLY want to solve this problem, you need to campaign for much higher taxes on land and property that will make it less worthwhile for older people to hang onto houses as an “investment”. Are you willing to sign away that hope of a massive dollop of cash from inheritance in the future in return for lower house prices today, and also lower income tax today, since it could replace income tax? If so, say so. The reason this doesn’t happen is that even to suggest it right now means political death. Even the mildest form of property tax, the so-called “mansion tax” gets written off as an outrageous attack on the “middle classes”. These things won’t happen unless there’s voices on the other side calling for them and voices willing to vote for whose who call for them.

  • Little Jackie Paper 31st Jul '14 - 6:12pm

    Daniel Henry – ‘Rightly we keep raising the bar and pushing for better, but I think it would be naive to dismiss all the work and progress that has been done by generations before us. Mistakes have been made, but given that they’re only human, I’d say that the generations before us have by and large done a great job.’

    OK – I realise that a lot of young, and indeed old, people today do have a very rose-tinted view of what life in the past was like. There never was a golden age. Some would do very well to remember that in 1970 unemployment was at a million. However I think that what rankles with today’s young is not so much doubt about whether the previous generations were deserving (for want of a better term). Rather it is a sense that the old were able to do what they did because of an environment that offers supports which simply are not available now.

    In 1961 my Dad walked out of school with 2 O-Levels, age 15. He walked straight into a production line that offered young, unskilled people earnings, security and indeed purpose. Try leaving school as an unqualified 15 year old now. No – it was not a laugh a minute and we should never romanticise it. My Dad will happily take issue with anyone who says 45 years on a production line was wonderful. But by 1972 on a SINGLE wage he was paying a mortgage despite interest rates in double digits. The affordable housing, the plentiful jobs, the loss-making nationalised industry, the paid-for in-work training – none of it is now there for the young. Yes, Dad worked hard – but labour has become massively devalued. We also should perhaps not duck the point that my Dad did not have to compete with three quarters of Europe for a job like the young do now.

    Arguably of course it was what my Dad didn’t get that were the real generational affronts. The right-to-buy discounts, the privatisation share give aways, the building society demutualisations (that by the way is the real boomer sin).

    Of course those now older worked hard and did what they thought was right. And as I say there is much misplaced nostalgia about now. But what puts noses out of joint is that the young today can work and strive every bit as hard as those in the past and not get even close to the same levels of reward. Or dare I say it, see the same social mobility.

    My Dad always said that hard work was its own reward – Dad was spouting rubbish. The reward was the secure house, the car, the family. More and more the young are finding that wages buy less house, less pension, less security. I don’t begrudge the old a thing, but at times the older generation perhaps don’t always recognise that their success was in no small part the product of a very, very benign environment.

    Maybe a world where I’ve got no mobile and no tonsils and a cheap house wouldn’t be so great after all. But it’s a world I’d like to experience Daniel.

  • Little Jackie Paper 31st Jul '14 - 6:14pm

    Allan/Matthew Huntbach – Just to be clear, I’m not getting at you here.

    If you had a choice of being born at any stage in time in the UK between 1945 and 2015 when would you pick? In making your choice say that you know everything you know now.

    The only caveat is that you don’t know what class you would be born into.

  • Joshua Dixon 31st Jul '14 - 8:06pm

    Matthew, I’m not going to dignify your “magic money tree” comment with a proper response. Don’t patronise me.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jul '14 - 8:57pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    If you had a choice of being born at any stage in time in the UK between 1945 and 2015 when would you pick? In making your choice say that you know everything you know now

    When I was born, 1960.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jul '14 - 9:05pm

    Joshua Dixon

    Matthew, I’m not going to dignify your “magic money tree” comment with a proper response. Don’t patronise me.

    Well, I’m sorry, but it’s an absolutely key point. University education was never “free” in the sense that those of us who provide it work for free. What is paid for by tuition fees now is what was paid for by taxation in the past. So if tuition fees had not been introduced, there would have to be the SAME amount of money raised, except through taxation. You, like many others, completely ignored that point.

    As it happens, I agree very strongly with the main points in your article. I’m not a supporter of the tuition fees system, I would rather it was subsidised through taxation. However, I think if are to have a proper argument on the subject, we do need to acknowledge the fact that if it was done that way, taxation would have to be higher.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Jul '14 - 9:24pm

    Little Jackie Paper

    Of course those now older worked hard and did what they thought was right. And as I say there is much misplaced nostalgia about now. But what puts noses out of joint is that the young today can work and strive every bit as hard as those in the past and not get even close to the same levels of reward. Or dare I say it, see the same social mobility.

    Indeed, yet the Thatcherites would say that all that was done that has caused this was in the name of freedom, and the Orange Bookers want even more of it in the name of freedom. They are talking utter cobblers. They only think it gives freedom because it does give freedom to some – the tiny rich elite who fund the Orange Bookers to pump out their propaganda.

  • David Evershed 1st Aug '14 - 1:42am

    Globalisation has meant that products once made in the Uk are now often made in Asia and services, like computer programming, once provided by UK workers can now be provided from India.

    This has meant Asian and Indian workers have raised their standard of living. But the competition means that the wages of many UK workers are not as high as they might have been.

    Unfortunately, politicians fear to spell out the realities and instead raise the expectations of electors to a level which can not be met.

    Even so the standard of living in the UK is much higher than fifty years ago. The evidence is the level of consumer spending and the percentage of obese people in the country.

  • @Joshua Dixon

    >We face a higher education crisis. I use the term crisis because it is becoming clearer by the day that the government is waking up to the fact that its current funding model is unsustainable

    The challenge we have is keeping higher education affordable so that the economic ‘benefits’ gained from the education are greater than the cost of paying for that education. Hence I read things slightly differently, namely, we are beginning to wake up to the reality of the crisis – one that was forecast back in the early 1970’s – namely higher education is expensive and rapidly becomes unaffordable when more than a minority of people benefit from it.

    >Where’s my house then, Bill? [JD 30th Jul ’14 – 7:01pm]

    I think this is one of several misplaced assumptions many have, both young and old- the post war dream of everyone in the UK being able to own their own home was simply that, a dream. For hundreds of years prior to WWII the norm was for people to live in some form of rented/tied accommodation. Given the population projections for the coming decades and the political belief that economic growth through population growth is good and sustainable along with the levels of house building actually being achieved and the mismatch between the two, I suggest your house may well be in another country…

  • Simon Banks 5th Aug '14 - 12:41pm

    Agreed. And as a baby boomer I’m glad you’ve avoided the fashionable tendency to blame that generation for believing (most of them) what they were told about perpetual progress.

    But speak to old people and you’ll find they often identify hard times for local young people and nothing for them to do as a bigger issue than anything directly affecting themselves.

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