“Rowan Williams, The [former] Archbishop of Canterbury,” said one of my golfing partners, “has never done a proper day’s work in his life.”
A little harsh really, but I know what he means. Prosperity does not just happen by people being nice to each other and when it comes to economic matters our spiritual leaders are best advised to keep quiet. But, I do agree with Bishop of London, Richard Chartres. Baby boomers – the generation born after WWII – are a “fortunate generation” who have enjoyed dramatic improvements in living standards but are now “absorbing” more than their fair share of taxpayers’ money. Elderly people make up just 15% of the population but account for 40% of public social spending and this “raises severe questions of intergenerational equity.”
Absolutely, undeniably, 100% correct. But the golden oldies don’t like it! They are up in arms, but their arguments are invalid.
Let’s take a look at what they are.
• “We have built this country and are entitled to be rewarded in retirement.”
You may think that the baby boomers have built a wonderful, thriving nation with public services that are the envy of the world. Or you may not. But none of this is relevant to the issue, which is that the baby boomers have taken out more than they put in. Whatever the amount of wealth they have created in their lifetime, their lifestyle has cost a little more than this. The size of the numbers is immaterial. If you have created wealth of £200,000 in your lifetime, but have lived a life that has cost £220,000, then you have been a drain on the nation and others have to make up the shortfall.
• “We had to work much harder than today’s generation.”
There is no shortage of people who will remember starting work at 15, walking five miles to the factory all just for a few shillings that they had to pass on to their dad. But did the average person really work harder in the 1950s and ’60s? Around that time I remember staying with my uncle, a senior figure at the Bank of England, at his house in Tadworth. We all had breakfast together and at about 8.30am he went off to catch a train to the City and he would be home by 6.30pm. Today, City workers work far longer hours and I think the same applies in many walks of life. 50 years ago, nobody expected shops and offices to be open in the evenings and on Sundays. Today, many people, especially the self-employed, are never off the hook – the mobile phone has seen to that.
• “We never had the luxuries of today’s generation.”
“We never had a TV.” “My mum had to do the washing by hand.” “The furthest we ever went on our holidays was Scarborough.” “Young people today have it all.”
Yes. But the baby boomers had a lot more than their parents. Relentlessly the world gets richer. Each generation can expect to have a better quality of life than the previous one. So before playing this card, the baby boomers should reflect upon the life of their parents. Did the latter, back in the 1920s and ’30s have fridges and cars? Did they have foam backed carpets and portable radios? Of course they did not, because such things were not available any more than today’s computers were available in the post-war years.
The facts don’t lie
The standard of economic debate in this country is pitiful. Baby boomers are unable to distinguish between their own personal experience and that of society as a whole. For sure their lives may have been tough in the 1960s, but that is not the average experience. Many look back with nostalgic fondness to those days.
But there are two undeniable facts. People are living about ten years longer than was envisaged back in the 1950s and that means that the contributions of pensioners simply have not funded today’s payments. The extra has been borrowed and it is the next generation who will inherit the debt.
The second fact is this: the UK’s national debt was under £50bn in the 1950s and ’60s. Today, it is about £1.2trn. That is the amount of money that has been spent for the benefit of those living in the last 40 years, but which will have to be repaid by those living in the next 40 years and beyond. Baby boomers, you have incontrovertibly taken out more than you have put in. And yes, this does “raise severe questions of intergenerational equity.”