David Willetts is Executive Chair of the Resolution Foundation, and a former Minister for Universities and Science, attending Cabinet. His book The Pinch: how the baby boomers took their children’s future and why they should give it back was published in 2010.
Ask people about what really worries them about the future and one answer stands out above all – that our children and grandchildren will not have the same kind of opportunities in life that we have enjoyed. The wheels of modern capitalism may keep turning so that there are new technologies and new medical treatments. But some of the big things that we really care about may be beyond their reach – the opportunity to own your own home and build up a decent pension for your retirement.
In my book The Pinch, I argued that we had become so sensitised to looking at our society in terms of divisions by class or race or gender that we had overlooked a new division that was opening up – between the generations. The baby boomers – born between 1945 and 1965 – could get started on the housing ladder and join a company pension scheme. But it is not so straightforward for our children.
Nimbyism has held back housebuilding so that we struggle to build 150,000 a year, but the Conservatives won the general election of 1951 by promising 300,000 houses a year, and Harold Macmillan went on to deliver the pledge. Conservatives spread occupational pensions through, for example, John Boyd-Carpenter’s provision for companies that offered them to contract out of higher national insurance contributions. Conservatives in those much-maligned 1950s really were delivering the property-owning democracy. And the baby boomers are the beneficiaries. That made it much easier to do these things without years of planning and struggle.
There wasn’t a deliberate plot to deprive succeeding generations of similar opportunities. It is just that we supported policies which had that effect without realising what we were doing. So decent members of local residents’ associations who served as school governors and supported local charities would nevertheless campaign vigorously to stop new housing in their area. And after Robert Maxwell stole his company pensions, we ended up regulating pensions so heavily that companies decided that they just could not afford to carry on with them. Our pensions became an unrepeatable special offer.
Sometimes critics say that I am stirring up conflict between the generations. But I don’t believe that there is a deliberate plot by one generation to disadvantage another. In fact, I am an optimist: I believe that we respond more immediately and sympathetically to appeals to the needs of future generation than almost any other political argument. The recognition of the damage that Nimbyism has done to them is surely the crucial reason why the number of people agreeing that we need to build more houses has doubled – from 27 per cent to 54 per cent – since 2010. It would be a terrible mistake to ignore this issue. Conservatives are at our best when we are not the party of possession, but of opportunity, and that must mean better opportunities for the younger generation.
Budgets used to have special payments and bonuses for pensioners: one of the best features of George Osborne’s Budget this year was that it introduced a new flexible saving scheme, the Lifetime Savings Account, targeted specifically at the under 40s.
Voters are much more responsive to appeals to the long term interests of future generations than they are to appeals resting on political ideology. And they are right. In fact, this is surely what holds a society together and makes belonging to a family and a national community so deeply meaningful. Edmund Burke got to the heart of the matter:
“the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee… It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
So we need to get more houses built, provide incentives for younger people to save in a flexible way, give them the best possible education, and invest in the infrastructure of the future. Then we really will be living up to our obligation to generations coming after us.