There was a time when it was older people who complained about the fecklessness of youth. But the natural order has been overturned. These days it is the young who complain about the irresponsibility of their parents and grandparents. Certainly, they have every right to resent the debts they’ll be paying off for the rest of their working lives – if indeed they find work at all.
Older people – and, in particular, the babyboomers – have a case to answer. In a column for the Telegraph, Jenny McCartney speaks up in their defence:
“When I was growing up, the politics swirling around the elderly was pretty clear: pensioners were a hallowed group, if not always in reality then certainly in rhetoric. They sat there, swilling tea, unassailably settled on the moral high ground. Their generation had successfully seen off the Nazis, after all: no matter what the rest of us accomplished, we would never be able to match that.
“Today, it seems, the serried, resentful ranks of the middle-aged and the young aren’t quite sure what to do with the new generation of elderly: whether to pity them, patronise them, envy them or make a grab for their cash while howling revolutionary slogans about equality.”
She provides a specific example of the new anti-pensioner mood:
“Last week, Alan Milburn – the former Labour minister tasked by the Coalition to report on child poverty and social mobility – spoke of ‘closing the fairness deficit’ with regard to pensioners. They were not carrying their fair share of the burden for austerity measures, he said: it was time to reconsider free television licences, bus passes and winter fuel allowances…”
There are obvious points on which to take issue with McCartney’s argument. For a start, withdrawing non-contributory benefits isn’t “making a grab” for pensioners’ cash – such freebies are paid for by taxpayers’ cash and no one else’s.
She also tries to play upon our sympathies:
“This is where Milburn’s pious talk of ‘the fairness deficit’ – such a superficially egalitarian phrase – starts to fall apart. The condition of old age itself is ferociously unfair, when compared with youth, and that’s why it eats up more resources…”
“It was Bette Davis who said ‘old age is no place for sissies’: she was right.”
Old age is indeed a time of need – which is why we all have a duty to provide for the future when we’re still able to. Yet this is precisely what hasn’t happened – instead the legacy we’ve left to the future is one of debt. To her credit, it’s an issue that Jenny McCartney faces head on:
“Who and what, meanwhile, emptied the pot of money meant for today’s youth? Who signed up to ruinous PFI schemes that are crippling numerous NHS trusts, failed to build adequate social housing in the boom years, or launched an extortionate war in Iraq on the basis of questionable intelligence? Perhaps Mr Milburn could tell us.”
There are those who think that an inter-generational blame-game gets us nowhere. They’re wrong about that – because for once we have a debate that focuses on issues of true long-term significance. Obviously, it is governments rather than entire generations that make the big policy mistakes. But once we’ve identified the politicians responsible for the worst of these decisions, we can ask who it was that voted for them.