An incredible thing has happened. A man born in 1956 has become the new champion of those appalled by baby boomers’ selfishness. Conservative MP David Willetts’ book –The Pinch: How baby boomers stole their children’s’ future – has finally dragged our argument out of the festering websites, internet forums and histrionic blogs. It has been deemed legitimate.
To summarise: those born between 1945 and 1965 received unprecedented benefit from economic conditions, rising house prices and mortgage-easing inflation. At the same time they enjoyed free university education, jobs for life and final salary pensions. Willetts backs up the theory with some beautiful facts, such as the one about baby boomers owning half of Britain’s wealth, whilst those under 45 own only a tenth of all property and assets. He even told the Telegraph there is justification for Generation Y suspecting a conspiracy.
I don’t suspect a conspiracy, but I do think there is a failure among baby boomers to understand the problem. I spent 18 weeks on the dole last year and watched the job centre fill with young people. Thousands of graduates are desperately hunting for unpaid work experience right now. Another million young people, who don’t have degrees or middle-class buoyancy aids, face the even bleaker future of long-term unemployment. But it is more than unemployment making us furious. There is the state-encouraged debt that students are saddled with at graduation (an average of over £20,000). There is housing: we’d like to buy one, but can’t (because prices rose so much over the last two decades and post-credit crunch mortgages have lost touch). There are also salary freezes, unpaid overtime, stagnated hierarchies and miserly pensions. It all adds up to more than just the norm for young people making their way in the world (we know that everyone has struggles in their life). House prices, student debt and a disproportionately unemployed youth are new problems, and they need to be solved.
However, there are three points continually made by those opposing our stampy-foot tantrum. The first is that graduates should not expect to walk into the job they want. The reply is, I don’t think they do. I certainly didn’t walk into the job I wanted, so I retrained, switched industry and moved to London from my native Newcastle. And I think every graduate, unless from a very rich family, has done menial work and had a job at some point during university too. We are not shirkers.
You can’t blame us for not wanting to share a skill-set with a lamppost
The second is our aspirations (laughable now). We grew up in an era of prosperity. Nobody warned us it could change – boom and bust was over, remember – and we chose vocations that would fulfil our desires. A new category of workers was born: the creatives. Then things went sour and in the economically-adjusted world we are discovering the boredom of ‘an honest living’ (a crock phrase). Our careers are being dictated by the market and dreams are back to being what they always used to be: fiction. In the HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords (possibly not on the Sky Plus of many RSA Fellows, but a big hit with Generation Y) there is a scene in which a young man is interviewed for a job:
Boss: “The job is you have to hold up this sign and you have to make sure it points in the right direction. Now does that sound like something you can do?”
Young man: “It sounds like something a lamppost could do.”
You can’t blame us for not wanting to share a skill-set with a lamppost.
The final quarrel is our spending and on this I concede. A quick look through my bank statement: £52.15 mobile phone bill, £40 cash, £437.50 rent, £10.50 at the White Hart, £14.60 Pizza Express, £16.14 Sainsbury’s… Dough balls seem less than essential in hindsight, and surely I could avoid the pub and save for a rainy day (or a mortgage)? But spending is a habit we have been taught by the baby boomers. We are encouraged to get into debt by the state to pay our way through university. There are incentives from the banking institutions to get credit cards while a student. Our lives are saturated with clever advertising and beautiful potential possessions, made by companies owned by baby boomers. Spending is a problem, but no doubt it will be thoroughly fixed by a few years of poverty.
So one concession and two denials – undoubtedly there is still a case to answer. After his talk at the RSA to discuss the new book, I asked Willetts who is reading it. He said it is on the bedside table of David Cameron, George Osborne and Mervyn King. So perhaps the argument will become political. Maybe then baby boomers will listen a little harder and stop dismissing our complaint as spoilt petulance and misplaced entitlement. Maybe leverage will be gained when they realise that, in the future, it will be Generation Y which decides whether to spend on the elderly or the young.
Andrew Hankinson is a 29-year-old freelance journalist and contributor to the The Observer