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The past decade has seen a growing recognition of a new divide in politics and society — not class, but age. Social class has ceased to be a predictor of voting behaviour in Britain as both low and high income groups are pretty much evenly split between the two main parties. But people aged 70 are now more than twice as likely to vote Conservative than Labour, whereas young people are more than twice as likely to vote Labour. In America, other divisions of race and ideology are so strong that age is less important for voting but religion matters and religious commitment is clearly declining over successive generations.
This has led to new talk of a generation gap, and in his new book Bobby Duffy — formerly of polling company Ipsos Mori, now director of The Policy Institute at King’s College London — disentangles three influences shaping our attitudes. Big social trends can change all of us over a period regardless of our age — a shift towards greater acceptance of gay people, for example, even among the old. But we also change over our own life cycle as we go through formative experiences, such as having children.
And there are cohort effects as well, leaving particular generations imprinted by specific experiences that happen at a crucial point when their attitudes are forming: when asked about the most significant political events during our lives, we tend to identify things that happened during our early adulthood.
There are subtle links between these three for which Duffy provides vivid examples. For instance, younger generations start smoking later but do not give up the habit as quickly, so the life cycle effect is less evident — perhaps because they leave home and assume “adult” responsibilities later.
He argues that there is not a deep attitudinal divide between the generations. This is the good news Duffy’s Generations (published in the US as The Generation Myth) — young and old can communicate with each other and care for each other. The British state is being reshaped to focus on older people, with the NHS and social care and the pensions “triple lock” — which guarantees retirees a minimum rise in income — given priority. But younger people do not appear strongly to object to this. They want granny to be well looked after.
Meanwhile, in the US, Medicare and social security remain untouchable. Some commentators think this shows there is no generational gap after all. But the evidence on attitudes does not change the reality of a growing economic gap between the generations.
The surge in asset values over the past 20 years has massively benefited the post-1945 baby boomer generation who own the housing and have the generous company pension schemes. In the UK, the value of our assets, above all our housing and pension wealth, used to stand at about three times our national income. But in the past 30 years it has shot up to seven times. So acquiring an asset such as a house or a decently funded pension from earnings is much harder for the younger generation, while the older generation may be sitting on substantial wealth even if they had modest incomes.
There has also been a big shift in attitudes between the generations in a much more liberal direction. The boomers led that shift — the attitude gap between them and their parents is much greater than that between subsequent generations. But when it comes to economics the story is rather different. The generation before the boomers had done pretty well and the boomers have done even better. The big cultural gap is between the boomers and their parents: the big economic gap is between the boomers and their children.
Boomers can refuse to recognise how fortunate they have been and attribute their wealth to personal merit. But that house they bought 30 or 40 years ago has not shot up in value just because they saved up to build a conservatory — tight planning rules and easy credit helped as well.
Sometimes I hear boomers say that if only young people were more involved and turned out to vote they would be listened to more. However, research we did at the Resolution Foundation showed that the decline in young people’s propensity to vote matched the growth of private rented accommodation, which has the most mobility and where voter registration is hardest.
This economic shift may actually help explain the alignment of attitudes. It means children remain dependent on their parents for much longer. They live with them into their late twenties and beyond. Setting up on their own is harder. Then their parents finance them — the bank of mum and dad is one of our largest mortgage lenders.
Even when they do live independently, young people have less space to live in, whereas the boomers have more space so it is also the warehouse of mum and dad holding much of their stuff. It is very unwise to row with your banker. This dependence has kept children more closely in touch with their parents for much longer.
One reason social media have become so important is that they enable young people to live a different and autonomous social life even if they are still cooped up in a bedroom in their parents’ house. And, after scrutinising the evidence, Duffy argues using social media is not as damaging as we fear — he points out that lower wellbeing is almost as strongly associated with eating potatoes regularly as use of social media but we are not bombarded with articles about how potato consumption is destroying a generation.
This dependence on parents is affecting our economic performance. Britain is less mobile than it was. Young people move jobs less because family ties are stronger when parents have all the money and power. So the loan from the bank of mum and dad may come with the expectation their child continues to live in the area with the promise of help with childcare early on but perhaps social care in return later. And that reciprocity shapes parental attitude to their kids, too — there is wisdom in that American bumper sticker: “Be nice to your kids — they choose your nursing home.”
The real key to the economic gap between the generations may not be in their attitudes but in something very basic — their size. If you are in a big cohort such as the boomers born after the second world war then you can shape your environment regardless of your attitudes to other generations. In a modern market economy it is your tastes as consumers that companies market to. And in a modern democracy it is your votes that politicians pursue. So you get things your own way regardless of what you actually think of the younger generation — just don’t regard it all as a reward for exceptional personal qualities that the younger generation lack.
In this very welcome book, however, Duffy gives us hope that older people could respond to an appeal to do something on behalf of their children and grandchildren because they have more in common and care about them more than the pessimists may fear.
Generations: Does When You’re Born Shape Who You Are? by Bobby Duffy Atlantic Books, £20/Basic Books $30, 336 pages
David Willetts is president of the Resolution Foundation. His book, ‘The Pinch’, was published in 2010
Data visualisation by Steven Bernard
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