Millennials versus Baby Boomers: words matter in the politics of intergenerational fairness

Rhetoric used today to describe intergenerational debates will shape tomorrow’s policies – and affect all of our futures

Kate Alexander ShawThe last several years have seen an upswell of interest in the idea of intergenerational fairness, based on concerns that today’s young people cannot hope to achieve the same prosperity as older generations.  The financial crisis of 2008-09, and the subsequent weakness of the recovery in most of Europe’s economies, has only sharpened the sense that Europe’s young people have seen their prospects fundamentally worsen, and that political debates will therefore increasingly be driven by tensions between age cohorts.   The direction of that new politics is, however, still highly uncertain.

In Britain, interest in questions of intergenerational fairness has emerged partly through a new media discourse, in which debt-laden, precariously housed and under-employed ‘Millennials’ are set up in contrast to early-retiring, asset-rich ‘Baby Boomers’.  This intergenerational framing both redescribes some familiar problems (ageing populations, the casualisation of work, housing affordability) and provides an off-the-peg metric for describing new ones.  For example, the interpretation, in some quarters, of the Brexit vote as being the triumph of the eurosceptic old over the europhile young shows the extent to which age-group has become a critical variable in our understandings of twenty-first century politics.

There is no doubt that intergenerational economic cleavages are real, and increasingly politically salient.  In 2015 the youth unemployment rate in the EU was over 20 per cent, compared with 8 per cent for workers over 25.  It is no longer the case that successive generations can expect to be more prosperous than their parents, with income growth stalling and income inequality growing wider in many advanced economies in the last 30 years.  Wealth inequalities between generations are also evident and seem likely to deepen.

In the UK, for example, rising property prices have made home ownership the major determinant of wealth for most households, and one which is increasingly out of reach for young people.  Britons born in the 1980s have, on average, about half the asset wealth that those born in the 1970s had at the same age.  Such asset inequalities are also relevant to inequality within generations, as the passing on of housing equity tends to reinforce the disparity between the children of homeowners and the children of renters.  Via the housing market, intergenerational inequality therefore plays into inequality trends more widely.

The changing fortunes of the generations are not, however, purely a product of market forces: policy has been a key driver of these trends.  For example, Britain’s ‘triple lock’ commitment to a minimum increase in the state pension (introduced by the coalition government in 2010) has seen the incomes of retired households rising faster than those of working households, to the extent that the Resolution Foundation estimated in February that the average pensioner household was now £20 per week better off (after housing costs) than the average household in work.  Intergenerational prospects may be complex and multi-faceted, but they do seem to be susceptible to policy interventions in important respects.

Of course, divining a set of economic trends is not the same as predicting their political implications, and it remains to be seen whether increasing interest in intergenerational questions will underpin, or undermine, efforts to renew Europe’s social contract.  On the one hand, it is possible that a new sense of common interest based on age could be a basis for political mobilization by young people, opening up a conversation about the right balance of policy entitlements across age groups.  On the other hand, the politics of intergenerational fairness has clear potential to be divisive and zero-sum, reinforcing perceptions that pooling resources to address economic inequalities is unaffordable or even undesirable.  Given that Europe’s post-crisis politics has so far been dominated by narratives of austerity, such a development is not hard to imagine.

With the politics at a crossroads, the rhetoric in which this new debate is being conducted will be critical to where things go next.  Here again the evidence is decidedly mixed.  Sociologist Jennie Bristow has found that since 2006, the print media in Britain has increasingly used ‘Baby Boomers’ as a pejorative term, depicting a whole generation as problematic both economically, in respect of the burden of an ageing population, and culturally, using tropes around the self-indulgent children of the 1960s.  Interestingly, however, Bristow finds that ‘concerns about inter-generational conflict seem today to be incited primarily, not by younger generations themselves, but by opinion-formers within the political and cultural elites’.  That is, the conflictual framing of ‘baby boomers versus millennials’ may be being conceived and propagated by newspaper editors who are themselves members of the boomer generation.  One can only guess at the reasons for that rhetorical choice, but one possibility is that media stories about baby boomers are the print version of clickbait, designed to generate a frisson of fear among newspaper readers (themselves an ageing population) about the possibility of policy turning against them.

This new discourse of intergenerational conflict is not confined to the media: it is also becoming commonplace in policy circles.  Bristow’s empirical evidence is based on newspaper content, but similar language is also evident in some political materials, such as the recent Work and Pensions Select Committee Report, which bluntly described ‘an economy skewed towards baby boomers and against millennials’.  A parliamentary debate on the subject saw claims that pension policy, in particular, had been ‘favouring pensioners and reducing the living standards of the working population’, an explicitly zero-sum reading of welfare policy choices.

Focus group evidence, on the other hand, suggests that when both younger and older people are asked for their views on questions of intergenerational fairness, they are uncomfortable with the idea of a straight fight between generations, tending to see the economic generation gap as problematic for young and old alike.  A ‘citizens’ jury’ convened by Price Waterhouse Cooper last year reported that participants of all ages saw intergenerational fairness as ‘a complicated picture with no generation being outright ‘winners’’.  As a result, participants were skeptical of policies they saw as punitive of any particular age group, preferring to find mutually beneficial solutions.  While the research base on this subject is still relatively thin, the early evidence suggests the idea that age cohorts are now in a competitive struggle for resources should not be assumed to resonate with the public.  And indeed some policy interventions are making use of more solidaristic framings, as when Theresa May introduced reforms to the housing market by appealing to the concerns of older homeowners who ‘worry about the ability of their children and grandchildren to afford their own home and to have access to the same chances in life that they have enjoyed’.

Intergenerational fairness is a complex agenda, taking in everything from the minutiae of welfare policy to the larger sweep of Europe’s post-crisis political economy.  Complex problems, however, often generate simplistic politics.  Whether intergenerational questions are approached via rhetorics of competitive struggle, or of shared interests, may have important consequences for the kinds of policy solutions that can be imagined.  Language, therefore, matters a great deal; the direction of the discourse in the next several years will have long-running consequences for the way Britain, and other European nations, design their social safety nets for generations to come.  Expect today’s rhetorical battles to set the foundations for tomorrow’s policy consensus.