Generations by Bobby Duffy – boomer or bust

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Newsletter: FT Weekend

The past decade has seen growing recognition of a new divide in politics and society – not class, but age. Social class has ceased to be a predictor of voting behavior in Britain, as the low and high income groups are roughly evenly split between the two main parties. But people in their 70s are now more than twice as likely to vote Conservative than Labor, while young people are more than twice as likely to vote Labor. In America, other racial and ideological divisions are so strong that age is less important to vote, but religion matters and religious commitment clearly decreases over generations.

This has led to further discussion of a generation gap, and Bobby Duffy – formerly of polling firm Ipsos Mori, now director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London – unraveled three influences that shape our attitudes. Major social trends can change all of us over a period of time, no matter how old we are – a move towards greater tolerance for homosexuals, for example, even among the elderly. But we also change throughout the life cycle as we go through classic experiences, like having children.

And there are also cohort effects, leaving particular generations marked by specific experiences that occur at a crucial time when their attitudes are formed: when asked about the most important political events in our lives, we have tendency to identify things that happened in early adulthood. .

There are subtle connections between these three for which Duffy provides vivid examples. For example, younger generations start off with lower smoking levels, but now young people don’t quit as quickly as they did, so the life cycle effect is not that strong – maybe be because of the delay in adulthood and responsibility.

He maintains that there is no deep generation gap. This is the good news of his book Generations (published in the United States as The myth of the generation) – young and old can communicate with each other and take care of each other. The UK state is being reshaped to focus on the elderly, with the NHS, social services and ‘triple lock’ pensions – which guarantee retirees a minimal increase in their income – are given priority. But the youngest do not seem to be strongly opposed to it. They want granny to be well looked after.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Medicare and Social Security remain untouchable. Some commentators think this shows that there is no generational divide after all. But the evidence on attitudes does not change the reality of a growing economic gap between the generations.

The surge in asset values ​​over the past 20 years has massively benefited the post-1945 baby boom generation who own the home and benefit from the company’s generous pension plans. In the UK, the value of our assets, especially our property and retirement wealth, was once equivalent to around three times our national income. But in the past 30 years, it has climbed up to seven times. This makes it much more difficult for the younger generation to acquire an asset such as a house or a properly funded pension from income, while the older generation can be sitting on substantial wealth even if they had modest income. .

There has also been a great change of attitude between the generations in a much more liberal direction. Baby boomers have led this change – the attitude gap between them and their parents is much larger than that between subsequent generations. But when it comes to economics, the story is quite different. The pre-baby boomer generation had done quite well and the baby boomers did even better. The big cultural gap is between baby boomers and their parents: the big economic gap is between baby boomers and their children.

3 graphs showing Proportion of Britons owning their home either directly or by mortgage (%) Proportion of Americans owning their home either directly or by mortgage (%) Proportion of Britons who are private tenants (%) Breakdown by generation Z, Millennials, Generation X, Baby Boomers and Pre-War

Baby boomers may refuse to recognize how lucky they have been and attribute their wealth to personal merit. But that house they bought 30 or 40 years ago hasn’t appreciated in value just because they saved up to build a veranda – strict planning rules and easy credit also helped.

Sometimes I hear baby boomers say that if only young people would get more involved and vote, they would be listened to more. However, the research we did in Foundation Resolution showed that the decline in the propensity of young people to vote was consistent with the growth in private rental housing, which is the most mobile and where voter registration is the most difficult.

This economic change may actually help explain the alignment of attitudes. This means that children remain dependent on their parents for longer. They live with them until their late twenties and beyond. Settling on their own is more difficult. Then their parents fund them – mom and dad’s bank is one of our biggest mortgage lenders.

Even when living independently, young people have less space to live in, while baby boomers have more space, so it is also mom and dad’s warehouse that holds a large part of their lives. business. It is very unwise to row with your banker. This addiction has allowed children to stay in contact with their parents for longer.

One of the reasons social media has become so important is that it allows young people to live different and independent social lives even though they are still locked in a bedroom in their parents’ house. And, after reviewing the evidence, Duffy argues that using social media isn’t as damaging as we fear – he points out that lower well-being is almost as strongly associated with regular potato consumption. than the use of social media, but we are not bombarded with articles about how the consumption potato is destroying a generation.

This dependence on parents affects our economic performance. Britain is less mobile than it used to be. Young people change jobs less because family ties are stronger when parents have all the money and power. So mom and dad’s bank loan may come with the hope that their child will continue to live in the area with the promise of childcare assistance early on, but maybe some help. social back later. And this reciprocity also shapes parents’ attitudes towards their children – there is wisdom in this American sticker: “Be kind to your children – they choose your retirement home.”

The real key to the economic generational gap may not be in their attitudes but in something very basic: their size. If you are part of a large cohort such as the Baby Boomers born after WWII, you can shape your environment regardless of your attitude towards other generations. In a modern market economy, it is your tastes as consumers that businesses target. And in a modern democracy, it’s your votes that politicians are looking for. So you get it your way, regardless of what you really think about the younger generation – just don’t take it all as a reward for outstanding personal qualities that the younger generation is lacking.

In this welcome book, however, Duffy gives us hope that older people might answer a call to do something on behalf of their children and grandchildren because they have more in common and care about them. more than the pessimists fear.

Generations: When you were born, does that shape who you are? by Bobby Duffy Atlantic Books, £ 20 / Basic Books $ 30, 336 pages

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. His book, ‘pinching‘, was published in 2010

Data visualization by Stephane Bernard

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