David Willetts, once Universities minister under David Cameron, now Chair at the Resolution Foundation has made his name arguing that the current difficulties faced by young people are the result of the excesses enjoyed by their parents – the ‘baby boomer’ generation of the post-war years. Willetts – as architect of the current tuition fees scandal, played his own part in making many young people’s lives much harder.
It’s certainly true that with employment opportunities in short supply, today’s young people will be the first generation worse off than the previous and that welfare policies and the tax system are stacked in favour of older people. As everybody knows, the younger generation are also spending a record share of their income on housing, in many cases, without being able to ever afford to buy their own place. Willetts now calls for increased taxes on income and wealth, to stop budget deficits ballooning and the NHS collapsing – policies that might seem more at home in socialist programmes.
It’s true that radically different economic policies are needed, to stop young people (the group also hit hardest by the economic crash) falling even further behind. But the major problem with his analysis is that, rather than being the consequence of global changes in production and the dismantling of tradition labour markets, youth’s difficulties are the result of an ‘age war’ which by implication prevents commonality of interests across generations or any recognition of major inequalities between different groups of young people.
For example, the poorest young people are invariably those with parents who have not enjoyed the wealth and privilege that people like Willetts have, while many parents have had to provide extensive financial support, provide accommodation or look after grandchildren as their own children struggle to survive.
The young people of the 21st century should not be considered a ‘lost generation’ that need compensating for their misfortune. Those that follow them will likely experience the same difficulties and face the same challenges.