uk: youth vs pensioner politics

By discounting young people, Britain’s mainstream political parties are heading for death-by-demographics

think they will have a worse life than their parents

of 17 to 21yo say they won’t vote in 2015

are unemployed or under-employed

loss of income for those in their 20s within 4 years

of the benefits bill goes to pensioners

The past month has felt like the mother of all come-downs. The weeks leading up to the Scottish Independence referendum were electrifying. Possibilities and hopes were laid open promising, at the very least, a revitalised politics for the UK that carried young people with it. Now membership figures suggest they are joining the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Greens en masse. In contrast, the UK party conferences that followed failed to articulate any positive vision for the youth in this country. There’s little to look forward to. A rather common question surfaced on the lips of many of my generation after listening to what both the ruling Conservative party leaders and their Labour counterparts in the opposition had to say: “What’s really in it for us then?”

The issue has now become existential. Politicians don’t even try to appeal to young people as voters, and this is reflected in their policies. The Conservatives have again proven that while they might be willing to throw a bone to “hard working families”, with what will most likely be a meagre tax-cut, they have little interest in delivering similar relief of any kind to young people, only 22% of whom said they will be voting Tory in the next general election. The real tax cuts were reserved for the top 15% of earners, few of whom belong to the younger generation. Labour, too, chose to stress that they will be taking real cash out of the hands of young people, by cutting Child Benefit and taking away Jobseeker’s Allowance for under-21’s not in training. Both parties floated suggestions to cut housing benefit for the under 25’s.

Here’s a fact that can’t go unscrutinised forever: Almost 60% of all benefits go to pensioners. This is, coincidentally, the same demographic from which the Conservatives draw the majority of their votes. Their party membership, hovering at around 100,000, has an average age of 68. It’s also the same demographic that is now abandoning them (and Labour to a certain extent) for the populist charms of UKIP. Appealing to this age group risks alienating not one, but two generations of voters: the very youngest, and also those from 25 to 39 who as young parents are most likely to be in need of Child Benefit. The majority of these two groups already disapprove of the current government. You might have thought that Labour would jump at the opportunity to articulate a different vision; instead, they promise to follow the same path, but with a more compassionate face.

“…stop subsidising and encouraging buy-to-let, which has decimated the housing market”

A depressing 54% of young people in Britain think that they will have a worse life than their parents. This is justified by hard facts: According to Ipsos Mori “Between 2008 and 2012 […] the median income for those in their 20s fell by 12 percent while it rose for pensioners”. It is also intimately linked to the fact that 59% of people between 17 and 21 say they won’t vote in 2015. The majority believes politicians are more interested in big business, pensioners and celebrities, and party lines prove them right. If there was any point in the speeches of both major party leaders in which they addressed these very real concerns, I must have missed it.

Desperate times, unfit measures

It isn’t exactly accurate to say that there weren’t any policy announcements directed towards the young. There were plenty, if you consider those not in employment to be feckless layabouts who should be punished, given a good kick up the backside and sent back to work. This rests on the general assumption that work opportunities exist, but the young are failing to take them because they are not skilled or ‘pro-active’ enough. But the skill-gap myth has been around since at least the 60’s and cannot account for the extent of the problem, which doesn’t stop with unemployment, but expands to the underestimated in-work poverty plaguing the young.

It is estimated that 40 percent of young people are under-employed or unemployed in the UK. The 1.4 million zero-hour contracts used across the service industry and “accounting for about 4 per cent of all jobs”, according to the Financial Times, mean that even those who don’t count as unemployed, need to either be subsidised by the state, or survive on significantly less than the Living Wage. The apprenticeships championed by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition are evidence of this. For less than the minimum wage, with compensation starting at around £2,80 per hour, these positions often involve stacking shelves and shining supermarket floors. There is nothing wrong per se with any job, but will this really get the young out of their holes and into “real” jobs thanks to skills learned?

“…the Tories are entering what is known in politics as a downwards spiral of “death-by-demographics”.

These ‘job schemes’ are, understandably, failing to deliver, because they either don’t provide meaningful skills or there are no suitable positions to be filled after they end. The answer to this failure cannot be cuts targeting the under-25’s. There is nothing to be achieved, even in terms of deficit reduction. Looking at the numbers, the Labour-proposed reforms of unemployment benefits for under 21’s would save just £68m. To put this in context, the benefits bill for 2013 exceeded two hundred billion. We shouldn’t forget we’re talking about adult citizens here, who might or might not have parental support. Housing benefit may be their only available means to fund their way out of the parental home or later into university and appropriate employment.

Punishing the young for fictional crimes and real failings of the system, is not the only option we have. The savings from such measures are pitiful and the damage is dramatically disproportionate, both practically and psychologically. Instead, we should be looking into policy ideas that would promote social justice and level the playing field, while delivering savings for the general economy.

Simple Steps

One measure, which would most likely attract great support from young people, would be to stop subsidising and encouraging buy-to-let, which has decimated the housing market in big cities and especially in London, eating away at disposable income and making it impossible for many to save. This is happening at a time when mortgage payments are cheaper than monthly rent. With lower wages and underemployment impacting access to credit, the young are essentially trapped, while if you’re a buy-to-let landlord, your mortgage interest payments are tax deductible, rewarding rent-seeking attitudes. For most, this is quite a significant discount, a subsidy that costs the state more than £5bn a year.

“The cost of this failure for mainstream parties across Europe has been the massive migration of young voters to the radical left and other populist political vehicles.”

There is some light at the end of the tunnel. The coalition government is considering means-testing winter fuel allowance. There is a good argument for going further and scrapping it entirely for new claimants. While it does little to reduce fuel poverty (only 12% of the money given out through Winter Fuel payments is actually spent on fuel according to the Intergenerational Foundation), it is also unacceptable to hit vulnerable youngsters when even rich pensioners enjoy such subsidies. The savings, which could be up to £1.7 billion, could be then used to fund free public transport cards for the young and the unemployed, which would only cost £1.8 billion, according to the same research. Improving access to transport has been shown to benefit the economy in a big way, both in terms of employment and productivity. The accountancy firm KPMG earlier this year found that “every pound spent on concessionary bus travel for older people generates more than £2.87 of benefits for society and the wider economy”. If this is the case for a demographic who are majority retired, imagine the potential if it were extended to young people.

Britain has lost cross-generational solidarity, and may need a more radical intervention to repair it. One idea would be to tie spending for pensions and other senior-only benefits, with spending on the young. With the pension bill at £140 billion and rising, the expenditure assumed by the state to pay for services like this and for the NHS (mainly used by older people and at higher costs) will be repaid by future generations. This is fair, as these are the people who are most in need and we should do our best to protect them. But it is also fair, and prudent, to make sure that these funds build for a future that can sustain this level of spending, by introducing an official measure of proportionality between the two.

Mention the word “Europe” and another gulf between younger and older voters opens up. There is a portion of young people that find competition by EU migrants over low-skilled labour to be daunting, and this might provide them with reason enough to support the euro-phobic stance of the Tory party right and UKIP. But for the majority of young people, support for Europe is strong, regardless of political leanings. The right to travel and work anywhere is very appealing. By promising an in-out referendum, while increasingly looking like they will back Brexit, the Tories are entering what is known in politics as a downwards spiral of “death-by-demographics”.

David Cameron’s promise to scrap the European Bill of Human Rights must sound appalling to most young ears. “We do not require instruction on this from judges in Strasbourg” he said. His rhetoric may be dressed in the language of national sovereignty, but it looks like another step to creating a harsher future for Britain, an extension of current policies in which prisoners are banned from having books sent to them, universal legal protection is stripped away with the cutting of Legal Aid, and foodbanks are the new norm.

The cost for Europe

These problems are in no way limited to Britain. Europe lacks the vision and the ideas to do anything about the problems besetting its youth. In Greece and Spain, youth unemployment is near 60 per cent. Yet, neither of those countries has a coherent strategy to deal with the phenomenon. Despite the fact a fund of €6 billion was set-up under the EU’s “Youth Employment Initiative” (YEI) a year ago, only France (with 24% youth unemployment) submitted a solid proposal. That too has been criticised for focusing on “CV-writing workshops and interview simulations” according to reports. In general, the initiative has been deemed too slow and ineffective by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and a failure by many analysts.

The cost of this failure for mainstream parties across Europe has been the massive migration of young voters to the radical left and other populist political vehicles. Centrist parties have hardly begun hitting back. The labour reforms proposed by Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi are one example: aimed at protecting precarious portion of the workforce, the ‘Jobs Act’ is a direct response to the popularity of the Five Star Movement and vehicles such as ‘Other Europe With Tsipras’ (inspired by the leader of Greece’s far-left SYRIZA).

“One idea would be to tie spending for pensions and other senior-only benefits, with spending on the young.”

Is there anything positive for young people to look forward to? The myth of apathetic young voters was laid to rest in Scotland, where around 80% of 16 to 21’s came out to claim their share in deciding the future of their country. The same will happen in England and the rest of the UK. The question is only when, and what will capture the imaginations of young voters, who cannot be discounted forever. It will be sudden, and both Labour and the Conservatives look likely to find themselves on the wrong side of history, following the fate of their respective counterparts in Spain, Italy and Greece.

Answering the question ‘what’s in it for the young?’ is not only a moral duty, it’s a pragmatic imperative. Young people not in employment, education or training are estimated to cost the EU an astounding €153bn a year – in benefits and foregone earnings and taxes. It is very unlikely that we can afford such a “luxury” for much longer,  let alone one that breeds anger and disillusionment across an entire generation.

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2 Comments

Ian Kemp

Look at the spectacular rise of Podemos in Spain as an example of exactly what this writer is saying and how it can be achieved. We need some way of mobilising the same feelings in the UK, I’m not sure how this is going to happen though until we get rid of the out of date First Past The Post electoral system.

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Mary MacCallum Sullivan

Why don’t we hold the progressive parties (in Scotland, the SNP – hopefully! – and the Greens) to a policy of ‘pairing’ their policies for old and young to establish criteria for comparison in terms of fairness.

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