Here are a few statements whose veracity, after the briefest of examination, should be obvious. The first is that housing in Britain is extremely expensive. The second is that this has intensified in the last 25 years – inevitably to the detriment of the young. The third is that, as a result, homeownership is falling – from a high of 70.9% in 2003 to 63.9% in 2018.
Adults now in their late 30s – typically the time when people have already started families and begin saving for their autumn years – are three times more likely to rent than 20 years ago. Rather than pay for an appreciating asset they can call on in old age, they subsidise the principal driver of inequality with every standing order to their landlord.
Worse still, unlike homeowners, renters will continue to pay considerable housing costs permanently (this is, after all, what renting means). This effectively means that the poorest households, with the fewest assets, will have the highest bills in old age. Meanwhile, the most affluent and asset-rich will have the lowest.
With no home of their own, no savings, and less likely to start a family – if they do it will be later, and with fewer children – the picture is bleak for younger generations. And that’s before mentioning personal debt, often for a university education, and the fact that the public services they use, from the GP to unemployment benefit, are in decline.
Meanwhile, the government takes comparatively more of their earnings, as millennials and gen Z pay Scandinavian taxes for an increasingly US-style state. This is only going to get worse, with the Tories set to implement a 10% increase in most people’s national insurance contributions, while lowering the salary threshold at which graduates start repaying student loans.
Younger generations have it rough.
Given the appalling hand dealt to what is now the backbone of the country’s working-age population, it is increasingly hard to understand why the right is obsessed with younger adults being soft and feckless. Kirstie Allsopp’s comments last week – that many young people can buy homes, they just need to move to places where there are no jobs – is the latest instance of misplaced piety blaming the housing crisis on a penchant for avocados and coffee.
It’s really not that complicated: in 1997, as Tony Blair entered Downing Street, the average house price was 4.5 times the average wage. A decade later, as he left the top job, that figure had more than doubled to 9.5 times. That is where they remain.
The desire to depict millennials and gen Z as weak and work-shy is entirely at odds with the facts: not only are adults in their 30s less likely to own a home than 20 years ago, and be in more debt, they are earning less than people their age a decade ago too. Young adults have never been hit this hard before, including after previous recessions: real hourly earnings for people in their 20s grew by 23% in the seven years after the recession of the early 1980s, and by 4% after the early 90s.
By contrast, there was no real wage growth for young people between 2010 and 2017 – explaining why those in their 20s spend 7% less than the same age cohort 20 years ago. Over that same period, spending among those over 65 has risen by around 40%. The first figure is partially attributable to rising housing costs, the second to enjoying the dividend of an asset bubble.
Given this grim reality, where older generations directly benefit from arrangements detrimental to those in their 20s, 30s, and even 40s, why do they persist in admonishing the losers?
Boomers are in denial.
One answer is that older generations, particularly ‘boomers’, have had to construct an elaborate mythology in order to assuage that most powerful of emotions: guilt. Why? Because, in short, they are the luckiest people in the history of civilisation.
Until the 1950s, the human condition, even in wealthier countries, was defined by war, disease and gross inequality. A European man born at the end of the 19th century would not only have likely fought in one world war, and endured another, but witnessed the consequences of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. For most of their lives, antibiotics did not yet exist – meaning infection remained the leading cause of death until the 1930s. A century ago, life expectancy for a British man was 48; while maternal death in childbirth, although falling for centuries, remained surprisingly high. Few felt hard done by because, generally speaking, this was presumed to be our universal lot: we were born, we struggled, we died. Indeed, that was the best-case scenario.
The second half of the 20th century held out the promise of something different, however. The character of this period’s steady improvement – widespread prosperity and progress – may yet prove a historic blip, however easily conflated for an eternal law of human affairs by its principal beneficiaries. There were public pensions and unemployment insurance, the weekend and pop music, constantly rising living standards and, in the Global North at least, an absence of war. The horizon of history appeared to be that things got better.
Until it didn’t. If we have to put an arbitrary date on that shift it would be 2008 – marked not only by the collapse of Lehman Brothers but the war between Russia and Georgia, betokening the possibility of conventional war returning to Europe. The energies unleashed since then – economic inertia, political stasis often shaped by gerontocracy, and a demise of the global order – are the background for younger generations looked down upon as somehow uniquely fortunate.
They won’t concede a difficult truth.
For boomers, particularly men – think radio host Nick Ferrari or Nigel Farage – this is all extraordinarily tough. While they have economically benefited from such a situation, it has, bizarrely, also wrought a psychological toll. These men pride themselves on being tough and resilient, and yet – unlike their fathers or grandfathers – have never fought in a conflict (Farage’s grandfather was a private in the first world war, Ferrari’s father saw action during the second). Meanwhile, unlike their children and grandchildren, they grew up in a world where anything other than progress was incomprehensible. The return of history, for better and worse, makes them feel trivial.
This is why many such voices, who dominate Britain’s media and political life, refuse to even acknowledge the scale of the housing crisis or the challenges faced by the young. To do so would mean conceding a difficult truth: that life for them, comparatively speaking, was rather easy. For a culture where self-worth is measured by sacrifice and suffering, giving that up is akin to an admission of personal failure.