Friday, 4 May 2018

Don't blame the baby-boomers

I am a baby boomer, and there is something I want you to know.

It's not our fault.

We didn't vote for a low-tax, free market economy in which schools, the NHS, and social services were starved of cash and public utilities were flogged off to foreign-owned corporations.

Nor did we vote to strip trades unions of their powers, so that employees were left without job protection and at the mercy of zero hours contracts.

And we certainly didn't vote for a housing market which has effectively locked out young buyers in favour of buy-to-rent speculators and foreign buyers looking for somewhere to keep their cash.

It is, therefore, grossly unfair that, in the words of Yvonne Roberts writing in The Observer, 'Today, “baby boomer” is a toxic phrase, shorthand for greed and selfishness, for denying the benefits we took for granted to subsequent generations, notably beleaguered millennials.'

Next Tuesday, a major report will be published by the intergenerational commission of the Resolution Foundation, the social policy think-tank headed by former Conservative minister David Willetts. (A few years ago, he published a much-discussed book provocatively called The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give it Back.)

Lord Willetts (born 1956, and therefore a baby boomer himself) did much to encourage the idea that his generation -- and mine -- is largely to blame for the growing intergenerational inequalities that next week's report will address.

I plead not guilty. And I have good evidence -- hard facts -- with which to establish my, and my fellow-boomers', innocence.

Let's start with income inequality. It fell steadily during the forty years until 1979 -- and then rose again, sharply, over the next ten years. In 1979, about twenty per cent of the nation's income paid to individuals went to the richest ten per cent of the population; by 2010, that figure had risen to more than thirty per cent.

Housing costs? In 1985, it took on average three years for a first-time buyer to save enough for a deposit on a home; in 2015, it took on average 22 years.

Do I need to remind you what happened in 1979? It was when the Conservative party led by Margaret Thatcher was elected to government. Over the next decade, it reduced the top rate of income tax from 83% to 40%, encouraged the sale of council houses at discounts of up to 70%, and privatised everything from British Gas to British Airways, British Aerospace, and BP.

Did you know, by the way, that forty per cent of the council homes that were bought under Thatcher's right-to-buy legislation are now owned by private landords? So much for her vision of a property-owning democracy.

In the mid 1980s, the Tories deregulated large swathes of the financial services industry in what became known as the 'big bang', a name that detonated deafeningly in the crash of 2007-8. Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, so she was definitely not a baby-boomer. Her economic gurus were Friedrich Hayek (born 1899, so not a boomer either), Milton Friedman (born 1912, ditto) and Keith Joseph (born 1918, ditto again).

Ah, you are thinking, but who elected Margaret Thatcher? Not baby-boomers is the answer. In 1979, more than half of voters aged under 35 (ie born between 1944 and 1961) voted either for the Labour party or for the Liberals, as they then were. In 1983, when the Tories consolidated their hold on power, it was the same story: 57% of under 35s voted either Labour or for the SDP-Liberal Alliance, as it had then become.

Conclusion? Thatcherism, which paved the way to greater income inequality, grotesque imbalances in the housing market, and obscene pay levels in the financial services industry, was not the choice of the baby boomers.  

Boomer blaming is too easy. Yes, we have undoubtedly benefited from the profound changes of the past forty years, but they weren't our idea, nor did we vote for them. (Admittedly, however, now that we are retired and have paid off our mortgages, some of my fellow boomers are voting to hang on to what they've got.)

The crisis facing the millennial generation is a direct consequence of a failed ideology, a belief that a low tax economy benefits everyone because private wealth will trickle down from the rich to the poor. As we now know, it doesn't: all that trickles onto the heads of the people sleeping rough on the streets is the water that drips from the railway bridges under which they seek shelter.

Greater private wealth? Perhaps, for the lucky few who bought their homes before the market went berserk. But for the unlucky many, with no prospect of owning their own home, the picture is of greater public squalor: pot-holed roads, under-financed schools, shuttered youth clubs and libraries.

Verdict? Baby boomers not guilty. Ignore those who hope to turn one generation against another. Let's point the finger of blame at those who are truly responsible -- those who, like Boris Johnson, argue that greed is a 'valuable spur to economic activity' -- and let's hope the millennial generation learn the right lesson.

If you want to live in a decent, fairer society, you have to be prepared to pay for it. That's why taxes were invented.


Neville Farmer said...

Robin, I am a baby boomer, too. While I agree with your conclusion that Thatcherism set this thing rolling? Where was the political vision in our baby-boomer Blair/Brown years to stop her juggernaut crashing into the wall? Why didn't our baby-boomer leaders take action to stop the banks going nuts, offering massive debt at low cost, investing in short, quick-buck returns? Where was the political vision to reverse the block on building council houses, to stop land-banking, to reverse the creeping privatisation of healthcare, social care, transport, education, policing etc?

The answer is the baby boomer voters didn't want to pay to fix a problem that, as far as they could see, didn't affect them. On that level we are definitely to blame. During the years when the baby boomers were dominant, we were living high on the hog, thriving on the short-term, vote-grabbing benefits of Thatcher's flawed dream.

Did we start it? No. Did we do anything to stop it when we could have? Absolutely not. As we move on, things will only get worse as the millenials, victims of our obsession with box-tick education and no-win-no-fee litigation find they don't have the tools to run the world and, like us, pass the stinking buck onto their successors.

Robin Lustig said...

Neville: You're right, of course, about Blair/Brown failing to see the financial deregulation crash coming -- but don't forget National Minimum Wage, Sure Start centres, reduction in child poverty, NI increase for NHS investment and utilities windfall tax. Yes, they could have done more, but I don't think it's fair to say they did nothing to roll back Thatcherite excesses.

Unknown said...

When I firat visites London in the early 90s to visit my sister there was large numbers of homeless. I moved to London myself in 98 and stayed 12 years. In that time I saw huge improvements. I went back to visit last year and was shocked to see howbthings have reverted to the early 90s. What is the commin thread-Conservative Government.