This is not an attack on the baby-boomer generation; it is instead an appeal to the better nature of the boomers – an appeal to Edmund Burke’s understanding that a nation is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”
One of the highlights of my political career was when Boris Johnson put me on his list of ideal dinner party companions (a great opportunity to meet Aristotle and Scarlett Johansson), so I recognise that behind his brilliantly effervescent articles there is often a deep wisdom too. I paid careful attention, therefore, when on Monday he challenged the argument in my new book, The Pinch. My book argues that the baby boomers have ended up doing very well for ourselves but that we are dumping too heavy a burden on the generations after us.
Boris is ideally positioned to make the case for the baby boomers, roughly those born between 1945 and 1965. Our baby boom had two peaks. The first came in 1947 – those were the teenagers who shrieked for the Beatles and promenaded up Carnaby Street in their bellbottoms. The second peak, when we had more than a million born in one year, came in 1964 – those are the boomers whose formative years were framed by punk rock and the poll tax protests. Somehow I do not quite see Boris participating in those social movements but demographically he is at their epicentre. He was born in summer 1964, the very quarter when we had more babies born than in any other three months in the past 60 years.
Boris celebrates the extraordinary technological advances of the baby boomers. I do not deny this achievement and indeed recognise in the book that human creativity and enterprise can continue to raise living standards. But that leaves open a host of questions. Take his example of perhaps the greatest single benefit of this advance: the improvement in life expectancy. That is marvellous. But it has very different effects on different generations because of, for example, contracts to pay people pensions after a fixed chronological age. It makes those promises far more valuable than expected for those people who already have them and makes employers very reluctant to be caught out making such promises again. I estimate therefore that over half the nation’s pensions wealth belongs to the baby boomers. They are doing much better than those generations coming before or after.
There is a similar story for the other main form of personal wealth: housing. We boomers got started on the housing ladder and then let inflation undermine the real value of our mortgages so we were left sitting on a lot of extra housing equity. The Labour Government then encouraged people to borrow against this equity instead of saving. So for the four years between 2005 and 2008, British families were not saving anything at all – unprecedented for any advanced Western economy since the War. The younger generation are finding it much harder to get started on the housing ladder. Their borrowings, including their student debts, will take years to pay off. Meanwhile, under this government, house building has reached a record low, much lower than when we boomers were trying to buy our first houses.
As a Conservative, I believe in spreading wealth and opportunity. With the direction the country is going in at the moment, I do not see how the younger generation are going to be able to build up funded pension savings or get on the housing ladder in the way we did. Commentators endlessly analyse how our country is divided by income or class, but there is a generational divide too. It needs to be tackled. We cannot just fold our arms and let improvements in technology discharge our obligation to future generations. When you look at Conservative proposals to raise the state pension age or transform the incentives for local communities to allow more houses to be built, it is clear that we recognise what has to be done to offer a fair deal to the younger generation too. And Boris himself has put this commitment to the younger generation at the heart of his mayoralty.
I would go further: what is broken about our country is the contract between the generations. The public finances are broken, and that means public services for us today are being paid for by borrowings which our children will be paying off for decades. That is why it is so important to get public borrowing under control. What is broken about our society is the escalator of rising social mobility so that younger people can make their way in the world independent of what their parents did: fixing that means reforming our schools and colleges. And our broken politics is, above all, putting off the younger generation of voters who feel their voice is not being heard.
This is not an attack on the baby-boomer generation – a generation of which I am proud to be a part. Boris is quite clearly right to note the baby boomers’ contributions. Nor is it a pessimistic belief that we are inevitably trapped in generational conflict. It is instead an appeal to the better nature of the boomers – an appeal to Edmund Burke’s understanding that a nation is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. Boris is right about the miracles of modern technology, but that does not discharge this fundamental obligation.