intergenerational hogwashpart 1: scapegoating the older generation
Societies experiencing dissatisfaction often seek a minority class which can function as a scapegoat for perceived ills.
Criticism of classes defined by religion or ethnicity having become taboo in polite society, one might assume that Western nations had effectively outlawed scapegoating. On the contrary, it appears to be alive and well – in polite society, and among establishment voices.
A standard feature of scapegoating is indiscriminate aggregation: lumping together diverse members of a class and treating them as if they were a homogeneous and possibly organised group. The fact that the class contains a disproportionate level of some disliked characteristic is then used to justify negative behaviour towards all members of the class.
Ethnic groups, for example, are at risk of being scapegoated if they are characterised by an above-average incidence of criminals or terrorists; but also if they include a relatively high number of moneylenders, bankers, or simply of the relatively well-off.
Scapegoating movements have their buzzwords, and their pseudo-theoretical constructs, which often receive intellectual support from members of the cultural establishment.
The new scapegoating movement
The currently fashionable scapegoat class is identified by age, and is usually referred to as the “baby boomers”. The term is fuzzy, but on most definitions includes people currently in their sixties and seventies.
The primary buzz-phrase for the blame-the-boomers movement is “intergenerational fairness”. Like other scapegoating concepts, this phrase is suitably vague and open to subjective interpretation, while providing scope to generate would-be legitimacy for resentment. Like similar concepts, it sounds objective and neutral but clearly has a particular target in its sights.
Related to the idea of intergenerational fairness, and being used to provide additional support for anti-boomer narratives, is the concept of an intergenerational contract, which is said to be coming “under strain”.
The notion of intergenerational fairness — also called intergenerational equity — has not sprung up to facilitate dispassionate analysis, but to articulate a specific theory of unfair advantage supposedly possessed by the older generation. The current Wikipedia article on the topic, revealingly, proclaims that it belongs to the Youth Rights series, and displays the image of a fist, indicating that we are dealing with an issue in the arena of activism rather than that of intellectual analysis.
In the vast majority of cases, “intergenerational fairness” is simply invoked as a tool for anti-boomerism, i.e. for considering the accusation that older people have too much, and/or that they are responsible for society’s current problems.
There are ominous parallels between the vocabulary of the anti-boomer movement and the narratives of twentieth-century antisemitism.
- The boomers are said to have “unfair levels of wealth”.
- They are “greedy”.
- There are “too many of them”.
- Euthanasia is urged on them as a “solution”.
- They are “responsible for damaging ideology” (either left-wing radicalism, or failing to deliver on left-wing radicalism, or signing up to market liberalism).
- They have “stolen” our (or their own) children’s future.
- They “hoard” their wealth, preventing others from gaining fair access.
Boomers are being pressured on the one hand to retire later in order to defer becoming a burden, but on the other are accused of taking job opportunities away from the young.
It should of course be permissible to criticise an entire generation, as it should be permissible to criticise any other group made up of heterogeneous elements — whether or not such criticism is justified. The fact that it is nonsense, and inflammatory to boot, should not mean it becomes prohibited. What should cause concern is when criticism of a class starts to reach consensus levels, or when hostility towards the class becomes enshrined in the establishment worldview.
More worrying still is when the hostility reaches the stage that its narrative is incorporated into government publications, and treated as if it were a well-established and generally accepted fact.
While the anti-boomer movement has not yet reached a level that could be described as populism, its efforts to legitimise disapproval of the older generation have clearly started to influence the policies of government and non-government organisations; and may well be affecting the way the elderly are regarded, and treated, by the individuals around them.
A short history of anti-boomerism
Hostility towards boomers – whether expressed by means of direct attack, or by referring to things being unsustainable, or intolerable — has become increasingly prominent over the last ten years. Its inspirations have come from diverse parts of the political and cultural spectrum.
In 2010 the novelist Martin Amis talked about an impending “silver tsunami ... a population of demented very old people ... stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops”.
In the wake of Amis’s warning came repeated calls in newspapers for readers to opt for voluntary euthanasia when they started to become “a burden”. These tended to come from high-profile journalists and writers, presumably to make the idea seem appealing. I am going to be doing it, why not you too! Obviously this depended on euthanasia being actually possible. Not surprisingly therefore, there have also been recurrent calls for its legalisation.
Anti-boomerism was given a major boost by the publication in 2010 of The Pinch. The book — by Conservative politician David Willetts — drew attention to the problem which the UK’s property bull market had generated for first-time housebuyers, and to the fact that an increasing concentration of property in the hands of older people had caused a corresponding shift in ownership of wealth. While it did not accuse baby boomers of deliberately engineering this, it placed the blame for the problem on their “demographic and economic power”. The book’s cover provocatively asserted that the boomers “took their children’s future” and that they “should give it back”.
The Pinch inspired numerous other commentators to adopt criticism of boomers as a useful narrative to explain current social and economic problems.
• In the 2012 Reith Lectures, historian Niall Ferguson condemned the older generation for saddling the young with debt.
• In 2013 the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, gave a speech in which he accused boomers of “absorbing” more than their fair share of taxpayers’ money.
• In 2015 the Centre for Policy Studies produced a paper which claimed boomers had become “masters at perpetrating inter-generational injustice”.
In November 2016 the House of Commons published a report on the UK state pension. The arguments used in this show that boomer scapegoating has moved beyond being an intellectual pastime. It has started to influence public policy, with the potential for negative financial impact on members of the scapegoated class.
The House of Commons report argues that the boomers have benefited unfairly from recent socioeconomic changes. It repeatedly asserts that the economy has become “skewed in their favour”. The class as a whole is said to exhibit certain aggregate (and hence average) features, e.g. a relatively high level of wealth. This is used as an argument for limiting increases in the state pension for every individual in the class — regardless of whether he or she could in any sense be said to share those features.
Pseudo-concept: “intergenerational contract”
The House of Commons report makes frequent reference to the idea of an “intergenerational contract”, which it claims is under strain. Other writers also make use of this idea, in commenting on the position of the older generation. The concept is borrowed from economic theory, but the use which has been made of it is questionable.
The very young and the very old have to rely on the care of others. There is a natural solution to this: adults look after their offspring when they are young, and after their parents and other family members when they are old.
Viewing this phenomenon on an aggregate basis, one could say that middle generations make economic transfers to both the young and the elderly. It can therefore be a convenient fiction, for purposes of economic models, to assume a relationship, or commitment, between the generations as a whole. This may be useful shorthand in the context of modelling, but is incorrect outside that context.
The term “intergenerational contract” misuses the word “contract”, which implies there are penalties for non-performance. “Intergenerational understanding” would be a less dubious description. But if there is an implicit understanding between old and young, it is one between parents and their children, not between entire age groups.
This point has become muddled up with the fact that after several decades of state welfare there has come to be an understanding — perhaps better called expectation — that in certain scenarios, society as a whole (via the state) will come to the aid of the individual.
It may be possible to talk of expectations coming under strain, if the welfare-state society fails to provide individuals with the lifestyle they were hoping for. To talk of a contract between different groups coming under strain is incorrect and misleading.
It is possible for members of one group to resent that the members of another group appear (on average) to be in a better economic position than they are. Or to resent that the members of the other group appear to get redistributed to them an ‘unfair’ proportion of resources acquired via taxation. To speak of inter-group contracts “requiring revision” is a pointless and slanted way of expressing this, though no doubt it provides a satisfying narrative for politicians.
According to a document cited by the House of Commons report,
the welfare state relies upon an intergenerational contract in order to operate.
This is false. The welfare state is a construct of politicians and government employees, though its existence may rely on a level of support from the electorate. Some of the politicians may be members of the party which won the last election. Beyond this, their priorities and preferences do not necessarily reflect the wishes of voters.
Use of the concept of intergenerational contract has become widespread. In his Reith lectures, Niall Ferguson talked about how our society has become burdened with debt, then argued that the biggest challenge facing us is “how to restore the social contract between the generations”. If short-termism has become an endemic feature of Western democracies, as Ferguson seems to be suggesting, it is not a revised or restored contract that is required. There never was one to begin with.
Getting a person to be more concerned with the future beyond his own lifespan, or his period in office – if that is what is needed – is likely to require something stronger than rhetoric about obligations, whether or not the rhetoric is bolstered with the spurious concept of ‘contract’.
The ‘contract’ between the state and the individual
The concept of an intergenerational contract is purely hypothetical. Arguably less hypothetical is the idea of an implicit contract between individual and state.
The state has the monopoly on violence. We accept that monopoly on the basis of various conditions, one of which is legal certainty. Legal certainty is an application of the more general principle that if the state makes assertions on which individuals could be expected to rely, it should not then renege on those assertions.
This understanding between state and citizen has relevance for the issue of state pensions, which are funded in part by national insurance contributions.
National insurance was originally presented as not being just another form of taxation, but as representing an exchange: specific payments to the state in return for specific services. Although its promised hypothecation was soon abandoned, it retained for some decades the character of being quasi-commercial.
From an early stage in the development of the UK state pension, voters were given to understand that:
(a) what they were paying for was linked to what they would receive;
(b) what would eventually be paid out, in relation to contributions paid in, would represent good value — comparable to private returns on investment;
(c) the pension they would receive would be sufficient to pay for a reasonable minimum living standard;
(d) the pension would be received as of right (i.e. without means-testing or other conditions), from a specified age.
The idea that what contributors were paying in would be commensurate with what they could expect to receive, and when they could expect to receive it, was conveyed e.g. by linking the level of pension to the number of years for which a minimum annual contribution had been paid by the recipient. Further, the government encouraged those who (for whatever reason) had missing years in their contributions record to make voluntary contributions, to top up their pension entitlement to the full amount.
Here we have what could be regarded as a quasi-contractual commitment by the state. When deciding whether to pay a voluntary contribution, an individual would have compared the cost with the probable benefits, based on the assumptions mentioned above, including the date from which they could expect to start receiving the pension.
Many government publications on the question of pensions now invoke the concept of intergenerational contract. Curiously, none of them appear to refer to the contract between government and citizens, or to the idea that it was violated every time the qualifying age for the state pension was increased. In 2011, for example, women who had expected to start receiving a pension in seven years’ time — some of them having previously made voluntary payments with this in mind — were told it would now be nine.
Britain, like other Western nations, may have a problem with future public spending commitments, which include pension entitlements. To respond by restricting the state pension for those currently or imminently receiving it, and claiming that this increases intergenerational fairness, or that it “strengthens the intergenerational contract”, is dishonest and unscrupulous.
Part 2 of this article examines in more detail the concept of “intergenerational fairness”.
© Fabian Tassano
published 3 September 2017
1. Martin Amis: interview in The Sunday Times, 24 January 2010.
2. David Willetts, The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children’s future — and why they should give it back, Atlantic Books, 2010.
3. Bishop of London: Daily Telegraph, 11 June 2013.
4. Centre for Policy Studies paper: Michael Johnson, Who will care for Generation Y?
5. House of Commons report: House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Intergenerational Fairness, HC59, 6 November 2016.
7. Niall Ferguson quote: Daily Telegraph, edited extract from the 2012 Reith Lectures, 18 June 2012.
8. Pension age changes in 2011: see House of Commons briefing paper SN02234.
9. Re the claim that abolishing the triple lock strengthens the intergenerational contract, see HC59, p.45: “The recommendations in this report are intended to strengthen the contract between generations that is at the heart of our society.”