Baby boomers are the winners who have taken it all – now it’s time they gave some back | Will Hutton
Charlie Watts was a great drummer, unobtrusively anchoring the Rolling Stones. I mourn his death. Abba are a unique group, if not to everyone’s taste: catchy songs with too little edge. But their re-forming to release another album in November has become meta news. Eight million watched the video of their new song, I Still Have Faith in You, in the first 48 hours.
The interest is off the scale of any proportionality. The baby boomers, not content with hoovering up household wealth and pensions beyond the dreams of the generations below them, now make the cultural weather too.
Yet what is striking about today’s collective excess of emoting over ageing and dying rock stars is the degree to which the generations that follow the baby boomers are willing accomplices. For them, Charlie Watts’s drum rolls on Sympathy for the Devil don’t come from another cultural planet. Generations X, Y and Z can hear the attraction too. The cultural chasm between us and our parents that we boomers felt in 1971 does not exist.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. Social scientist Bobby Duffy writes in his subtle and compelling book Generations that we should drop generational myths – that, for example, baby boomers are all selfish, unreflective, hedonistic beneficiaries of the postwar boom, while millennials are all snowflake narcissists living in social media bubbles obsessed by identity and seeking safe space, with the two locked in mutual dislike and incomprehension. The industry that has grown up detailing such all-encompassing generational differences is phoney.
Instead, what matters in shaping attitudes are the complex interactions, the events through which everyone lives, such as the pandemic, and what any age cohort collectively experiences, such as going to church less or the impact of having fewer children. But generations are not condemned to be at war. For as much unites as divides. Yes, the generation that lived through the extraordinary surge of musical creativity in the late 60s and early 70s shared something as a group, but that doesn’t mean the generations that follow can’t enjoy the pleasures of those great guitar riffs.
What does drive our attitudes, argues Duffy, are the fundamentals: the pandemic and threats of more; the impact of demography, notably ageing societies; the rise in graduates living in cities; the warehousing of the old in increasingly segregated communities; absurd house prices alongside stagnating real incomes; the transformation in the working lives of women; and the declining hope in western societies that tomorrow will be better than today.
So if Britain is becoming a wildly unfair country, increasingly run to benefit the old, it’s not because they have conspired to win a battle between the generations. It’s because conservative politicians have been more adept at exploiting the deep cross-currents than progressive rivals, made easier by a first-past-the-post voting system. The young are concentrated in cities, while the elderly are segregated and in smaller towns so their votes count in more constituencies and many more vote.
The mooted rise in national insurance to fund social care is a telling case: the elderly beneficiaries not in work won’t pay, but the young will. It’s unfair and of course there should be a universal levy. But it is not necessarily bad politics. The elderly will hardly object and, importantly, neither will the young, or not as much as they should. They think, wrongly, like all generations, that national insurance is hypothecated to pay for social benefits. An increase in the contribution is appropriate if we want the increased resources properly to fund the system. During the pandemic, there has been surprise at the extent of intergenerational solidarity: how much the young made sacrifices for the elderly. For Duffy, it was no surprise at all. The right has become highly skilled in manufacturing generational wars from which it benefits. Thus the culture wars directed at youthful enthusiasm to re-examine, rightly, Britain’s imperial legacy, which gets damned as a woke obsession. Thus Brexit, a policy that pleases the old and their prejudices while denying the young opportunity and a European future.
But nothing is cast in stone. With better framing, enough people over 60 could be persuaded to swing behind the young. They want the young to live a life at least no worse than theirs. Scratch below the surface and ageing boomers will acknowledge a bigger truth: they love the young, especially those boomers who have brought up their children much more intimately than they were raised themselves. The task for progressives is to unlock that love.
It hasn’t been tried, but if ever a Baby Boomer Trust Fund were established to bequeath some of their estate I am sure it would fly. Boomers own nearly half, some £2tn, of all British housing equity. Grandparents and parents want to look after their own, but they also want to look after their society.
If enough people bequeathed at least 10% on their deaths the fund could quickly be worth £200bn, a kind of voluntary sovereign social wealth fund to help heal British society. It could disburse funds under major headings. Support for babies and children in disadvantaged homes; funds to allow anyone to pay for justice in the courts; funds for the disadvantaged to train and then retrain in mid-career; funds for social housing; funds for those ready to repair relationships with the continent of which we are part. Such a trust fund would invest in great companies to help protect them from the ravages of private equity.
The generations don’t need to collude in the conservative strategy that seeks to divide them – they can make common cause. The great society, says an old Greek aphorism, is one in which the old plant trees knowing they will never sit in their shade. The challenges are too great for anything else.