Emma Revell is Head of Communications at the IEA.
Young people are having a rough year. They are at mercifully low risk from Coronavirus but they have nonetheless endured months at home with no schooling, isolated from friends, cared for by flustered parents juggling Zoom meetings and childcare, and wondering why they must wave at granny from across the road. Their older siblings may have had academic achievements thrown into jeopardy and university places removed then restored, only to find freshers week more like serving time.
18-24-year olds have witnessed jobs in hospitality and retail vanish. Some have “celebrated” virtual graduation ceremonies with little hope of a graduate position come the autumn. This is before we mention the financial burden of paying back the colossal government debt accrued over the past seven months or, perhaps more likely, the interest on that debt.
Who is fighting their corner? Where are the political leaders willing to stand up and advocate for young people, speaking out against the constant wedge being pushed between generations, that leaves each generation less likely to reach the level of personal attainment and comfort achieved by those that came before?
After a slow start, civil liberties campaigners found their voice in Parliament, with Steve Baker, then Graham Brady, then a slow trickle of others across the political spectrum beginning to speak out against Coronavirus measures, especially those imposed without parliamentary scrutiny. So why have young people not got the same attention?
Inter-generational inequality can be seen in almost every policy area – but nowhere more so than housing. It is one of the most pressing issues on the domestic policy agenda. But the failure of successive governments to build sufficient new housing stock means dreams of home ownership slip out of reach, or even imagination, for the children and grandchildren of baby boomers. The average UK house costs eight times an average salary, almost double the ratio in the early 1990s. In London it is thirteen times average wages.
Is this an issue the Prime Minister, the latest in a long line of political leaders to trot out the old saying “generation buy not generation rent”, is tackling head on? No. Instead Boris Johnson used his speech to party conference last week to suggest policies to facilitate 95 per cent mortgages, inflating demand yet again while refusing to tackle supply, replicating the problems created by Help to Buy.
He also recently pledged to protect 30 per cent of UK’s countryside by 2030 and his government is facing a backlash over a new algorithm to calculate where new homes should be built. Outrage focuses on the seeming desire of the Tory heartlands to protect the value of their house prices, with scant regard paid to the fact that this is yet another government that will fail to allow house building in sufficient numbers and condemn yet more people to a life living in rented, shared accommodation, unable to put down roots or start families.
At a time when the country is faced with pressure on the public purse, delaying fertility and the associated complications, including a lower birth rate, is something the Government should be seeking to prevent, not actively contributing to.
It is hard to over-state the catastrophic performance of the UK housing market in recent years. Between 1991 and 2016, the proportion of 25- to 39-year-olds who own their own home almost halved. For those under 24, it is now just 10 per cent. A report published by the Centre for Policy Studies last year showed that the increase in homes owned by private landlords between 205 and 2015 was higher than the number of new homes built in the same period. Effectively every new home built for a decade was bought to rent out, not sold to an individual or a couple looking to get on the housing ladder for themselves.
News of the Chancellor’s commitment to maintaining the triple-lock may have pleased pensioners, but it irked many others. Arguably the worst policy introduced under the Coalition government, it guarantees a state pension uplift every April of whichever is the highest: inflation, average earnings growth or 2.5 per cent. It means pensioners are guaranteed an annual increase in their state pension even if the rest of the taxpaying country is faced with wage freezes and unemployment, alongside a spiralling bill for public sector borrowing.
The young especially, who are more likely to be in insecure work, low paid work, or unemployed, will be languishing on Universal Credit, which incidentally could face a cut in April as the temporary uplift comes to an end.
This needn’t be the case. It isn’t difficult to imagine a vision for house building which rests on being able to provide decent, secure homes in which young people can start families, set up businesses, or stay close to their families. It is politically difficult but not impossible to tell granny and grandad that a slightly smaller increase, or a freeze, in their pensions allowance is necessary to set their grandchildren on the path to prosperity.
The voices of young people are always difficult to hear in British politics. They are often disengaged, much less likely to vote than their elders, and certainly less likely to vote for the party that has held the purse strings for the last decade. But none of this is an excuse for the inability of our political leaders to recognise, let alone act to mitigate, the damage their policies are doing to the youngest in society.