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Two interesting things happened today.  The Office for National Statistics published data showing that we now have, for the first time in history, over a million over 65s in paid work, almost 10% of the over 65 population of the UK.  At the same time, the Bishop of London, in a widely publicised speech, lambasted the baby-boomers for over-consuming welfare resources, more than their fair share, and greedily snatching all the resources from younger age groups.

This is an ill-considered, divisive and irresponsible debate.  It is so disappointing that a man with the power and resources of the Bishop of London stokes up intergenerational tension with such a narrow and unsubstantiated view of lifecourse & welfare.

First, although you hear the phrase ‘baby-boomers’ and this is increasingly publicly associated with how they stole our future, you never see any considered analysis of who these alleged people are.  Almost all baby-boomers are under state pension age, all millions of them.  They are aged about 48 to 68.  They are in the main not pensioners, who, despite widespread poverty and vulnerability, low state pensions and decreasing assets, punished for having saved according to government policy by quantitative easing, close to zero interest rates on their savings, and many struggling to make ends meet, are often represented in the media by a picture of Lord Sugar and an unrepresentative mansion in the South East of England. Instead of discussing poverty and inequality in housing, assets and income among our older people, this kind of nonsense rhetoric about baby-boomers fuels a vision of all pensioners as rich, all everyone else as poor, and a mythical cohort of “baby-boomers” (of no real age) who “have it all”.  Putting aside these so-called baby-boomers, about a quarter of pensioners own no property at all, with about 20 per cent in the social housing sector, and about 5 per cent in the often appalling conditions of private rented property.  A quarter of all privately owned homes and nearly 40 per cent of all rented homes are officially classified as ‘non-decent’, and these will be disproportionately occupied by older people.  Geographical variation in the value of housing equity is enormous with almost all housing wealth held in London and the South East of England.  It is important also to understand the political and social history of housing.  People don’t own housing because they are greedy, they own housing because of purposively directed government policy over many decades that made it so, and whether their house is now worth a lot or very little is an accident of geography.  About a quarter to a third of pensioners live below even the government’s low-drawn threshold for means tested benefits, failing for many complex reasons to claim the means tested benefits that the government considers they are entitled to, to maintain a bare minimum standard of healthy living.

Second, the societal contribution of those over 65 (need I repeat that these are not baby-boomers?) is never properly considered or even vaguely acknowledged in these debates.  As paid and unpaid workers, in the labour market, as self-employed business owners, as carers of self, spouses, parents and grandparents, many with complex comorbidities, as carers of returning adult children and grandchildren, as providers of financial, emotional and physical resources including housing, time and money.  Research over decades has shown repeatedly that older generations are net providers of resources within families, they provide more to their families than their families provide to them.   That is even without considering the role of inheritance in wealthier families, perhaps the most financially socially divisive cultural practice of all.

Third, when we move to the public sphere, the debate is again ill-informed.  It is again very well established in research that most health costs are associated with the years before death, and pretty much the two years before death, irrespective of age.  Every person can only die once.  The reason we see older people disproportionately represented in our hospitals and GP surgeries is because younger people are now so healthy.  Indeed, whether ageing populations cause health care costs to increase per se is a matter of intense and unresolved debate.  There are many other pressures on health care costs, including new equipment, new treatment and changing cultures of healthcare.  Growth in health care costs is much greater for younger age groups than for old.

Are pensioners “over-consuming” pensions?  Our state pension is among the worst in the Global North, and while many pensioners live in official poverty, millions more live just above the official poverty line.  Under the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, pensioner poverty became so severe that improving the financial lives of older people was a policy priority for the incoming Labour government in 1997.  Pensioners share in the nation that they helped to build, the economic growth that resulted from their efforts, not to mention their former and continuing contributions to taxation, national insurance, economies of household and care, and the labour economy for all of their working lives – often longer and more stable than contemporary life courses, with far riskier and detrimental working conditions that for many have impacted on long term health.  Some fought in Wars, some rebuilt Britain after the War, with increasing productivity in economic life.  They had children, so important to population stability and economic growth, and cared for them.  

Looking at a State budget at a static moment in time and seeing how resources are allocated is a fundamentally flawed approach.  These are our parents and grandparents, embedded in couples, in families, in communities and society, with lifelong histories of interaction with the State, going back to the day they were born.  Those who are young and middle aged will one day be old, and this will be true for them too.

We need to ask a different question.  What purpose is being served by dishing up the rhetoric of intergenerational conflict day after day?  By introducing social policies that deliberately set young against old, by formally creating age divisions, brutally penalising young people in housing and welfare, and then telling them its all the fault of the old?  The answer is that social citizenship is being eroded in the 21st Century for people of all ages, inequalities are widening, and it is all happening behind the smokescreen of intergenerational conflict.  Masterfully done.