Baby Boomers versus Millennials | New paper on the politics of intergenerational fairness

A new paper by Kate Alexander Shaw, published today, ‘Baby Boomers versus Millennials: rhetorical conflicts and interest-construction in the new politics of intergenerational fairnessanalyses the current debate in the UK around intergenerational fairness.

The paper is part of our research project on the Political Economy of Young People in Europe, in collaboration with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), which is investigating the challenges facing young people in Europe’s post-crisis economies, and the emergent politics of intergenerational fairness.

The paper argues that the intergenerational fairness debate has been almost entirely a post-crisis phenomenon in the UK, rising quickly up the agenda since 2010. The headline coherence of “intergenerational fairness” as a concept belies some important disagreements about its meaning and policy implications. Some strands of the debate are broadly progressive; others are more connected to the politics of fiscal conservatism. Kate’s paper looks at how the concept cuts across right-left politics in the UK and considers how representations of intergenerational fairness can be either solidaristic or conflictual, and the choice between these two frames has important implications for policy. The debate around intergenerational fairness, accelerated by the recent upsurge in youth electoral turnout, also raises difficult questions about the relative priority that should be attached to age and class in Britain’s political economy.

Download the new paper

Baby Boomers versus Millennials: rhetorical conflicts and interest-construction in the new politics of intergenerational fairness

The last several years have seen an upswell of interest in the notion of intergenerational fairness, centred on concerns that today’s young people cannot hope to achieve the same prosperity as older generations. In the British case, we have seen the emergence of a new discourse in which prosperous, asset-rich ‘Baby Boomers’ are contrasted with debt-laden, precariously housed and insecurely employed ‘Millennials’. The post-crisis economic context, characterised by austerity and slow growth, has only sharpened concerns about the prospects of young people, while discourses that present the interests of different generations as being in conflict are making age-cohort a critical new political cleavage. Rhetoric is not simply descriptive but constitutive of this new politics, reconstructing perceived interests and so opening up new possibilities for action.

The paper maps the emergence of the intergenerational fairness agenda in the UK, and considers its political implications. On the one hand, the construction of a common identifier based on age could provide a spur to political mobilization by young people, and a framework for reexamining the proper allocation of social entitlements. On the other hand, the politics of intergenerational fairness has the potential to be divisive and zero-sum, undermining rather than underpinning attempts to renew the social compact between generations. Headline consistency in the language of intergenerational fairness may belie important divergences in actors’ understandings of its meaning and policy implications. The recent increase in youth engagement with electoral politics may in fact raise difficult questions about the extent to which generational inequalities should be afforded political priority over intra-generational cleavages such as class.

Read three new response pieces to the paper:
Responding to the needs of Millennials: framing intergenerational fairness within an intersectional understanding of solidarity By Mafalda Dâmaso, PhD Goldsmiths, University of London, cultural consultant and member of the FEPS Young Academics Network

The change in the perception of change: the key to overturn a dark present By João Albuquerque, President of the Young European Socialists

Long Term Youth Unemployment: Characteristics and Policy responses By Massimilano Mascherini Senior research manager in the Eurofund Social Policies unit