About five years ago I wrote a review of a book called “The Candy Store Generation” in which its author had argued that everything that was wrong with the USA at the time was the fault of the Baby Boomer generation. A British politician had started the fashion for blaming the elderly in a much more widely read book (The Pinch, by David Willetts, pub. Atlantic, 2011). Now a new book gaining a lot of publicity in the USA is making similar arguments. Meanwhile in the UK one of the issues already being talked about in the General Election campaign is the so-called ‘triple lock’ on pensions. For the benefit of those not familiar with this particular device, what it means is that the basic state pension is guaranteed to increase in line with the higher of wages, prices or 2.5%.
There is a term that has been coined to describe the supposed phenomenon whereby the old take a greater share of a nation’s resources than do the young: inter-generational theft.
You can read my review of David Todd’s book here, and his review of the new American book here. For the purpose of this article I intend to restrict my comments to the situation of UK pensioners – after all, I am one – and to a refutation of the underlying notion of inter-generational theft.
A segment about the triple lock on BBC news the other evening explained that, whereas in the past senior citizen incomes were substantially below average earnings, they are now slightly ahead. (You can see a graph of this alongside this BBC article). Some have used this fact to argue that the ‘double lock’ – linking pensions to cost of living or wages – is adequate and that 2.5% is an unnecessary additional burden on the exchequer. On the face of it, and bearing in mind the other ‘perks’ that senior citizens receive, from winter heating allowance to free TV licenses and subsidised public transport, it is a compelling argument.
At a time when the crisis in social care in the UK means that some old people are occupying hospital beds and resources when they could be cared for at home, why not eliminate the 2.5% guarantee and use the money to provide more home care, or care home places?
The use of averages for this comparison is, as is often the case, misleading. The figure for ‘average pensioner incomes’ includes many for whom the state pension is only a small part of their total income because they have private pensions and investments. For them the 2.5% guarantee is virtually meaningless. However, there remains a significant degree of pensioner poverty in the UK. As one of those fortunate to have a private pension, I can well see that anyone who has to rely solely upon the state pension must find it extremely difficult to make ends meet. For such people the little extra that the 2.5% represents is important.
At the same time I can understand how the young, faced with student loans, low wages and the high cost of housing, might resent the fact that some older people seem to lead a feather-bedded existence.
My contention, however, remains the same as when I reviewed Todd’s book: it is as wrong to pit one generation against another as it is to blame a particular ethnic group or nationality for all that is wrong with the world. (See my article about the dangers of scapegoating here). Every generation has its share of people who prefer scamming the system to working; every generation has a few who use their power and influence to screw over everyone else. And, yes, there are more people with power and influence among the old than among the young. But whilst taking from the rich to give to the poor is a good idea, taking from every old person to give to the young is not.