Have young people never had it so bad?

student protestors

Rising wages and low house prices helped the baby boom generation to prosper. Today's young face high unemployment, expensive education, and a lifetime of renting. Have they never had it so bad?

Let's take a typical 24-year-old everyperson. This person lives in Nottingham.

There's a one-bedroom flat they want but it costs £120,000. You need a salary of more than £25,000 to get a mortgage for that.

But this everyperson has no salary. They're one of the 18.5% of people aged 18-24 in the UK who are out of work. Our 24-year-old has a degree and a £25,000 debt to pay off from university.

The everyperson has moved back in with their parents, part of the "boomerang adultescents".

A job is the most pressing requirement but many of those are now going to older workers. The over-50s accounted for 93% of the job increases over the last decade, according to analysis by investment bank Citi.

And there's the growing number who put off retiring. Working people of pension age have nearly doubled over the last two decades, reaching 1.4 million in 2011, according to the Office for National Statistics.

In 1957 Harold Macmillan declared: "Most of our people have never had it so good."

Today no politician would utter those words.

Yet there's a growing belief that the generation of baby boomers born in the two decades before 1965 were lucky to live when they did. Houses were easier to come by when young and rocketed in value. Pensions were generous. Unemployment was mostly low. Now, aged between 50 and 70, they have had it pretty good.

The question for today's young might be, have they ever had it so bad?

Baby boomers: From cradle to retirement home
10 babies on a bed Boom time: A sharp increase in births after World War II created the baby boomer generation, born into an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.
Baby sitting on a Rolls Royce Roll with it: Babies born between 1948 and 1964 entered an age of such stability that they have subsequently been described by some as self indulgent.
60s teenagers in a record shop As teenagers in the 60s, baby boomers could look forward to jobs for life and plenty of disposable income. Did this foster an early sense of entitlement?
A 1980s couple pose in front of house and car The 80s saw the last of the baby boomers grow up and go to work. It was the era of Wall Street, the "big bang" in the City and rocketing house prices.
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton Tony Blair and Bill Clinton: Archetypal baby boomers who grew up to rule their respective nations in the 1990s and 2000s.
Fiftysomethings drinking champagne Many baby boomers now enjoy a lifestyle that the younger generation can only dream of. They are also working longer and, some say, blocking jobs.

There have been eras indisputably worse. A whole generation went to war in 1914 and 1939. There was the hunger and unemployment of the Great Depression. And child labour in Victorian times.

But take 1963, the year that marked the end of national service and the rise of the Beatles, and you have an interesting cut-off point for comparison. Is 2013 the hardest time for young people in the last 50 years?

Today, for the first time, a person in their 80s has higher living standards than someone working in their 20s, the Financial Times reported in October 2012.

Rally in November 2012 against sharp rises in university tuition fees, funding cuts and high youth unemployment Protest against rising fees and youth unemployment

A student who started university in 2011 will graduate with average debts of £26,000 and bleak career prospects.

And even the lucky ones who get good jobs face a lifetime of renting, unless the "Bank of Mum and Dad" is willing and liquid enough to help out.

Baby boomers born in the 1940s to mid 60s bought their first home when prices were low and watched property prices shoot up as house-building slowed while the population rose. There was relatively low unemployment up to the 1980s and again in the 1990s and 2000s.

Wages rose. Low inflation and globalisation kept prices down. They got generous pensions.

There was poverty too, but those middle and top earners flourished. They are the lucky generation. So goes the theory.

It's not just young agitators saying this. In 2010, Conservative frontbencher David Willetts, born in the late 1950s, tackled the subject in his book The Pinch. It is subtitled "How the baby boomers took their children's future - and why they should give it back."

Graph showing rise in average age of first time buyers, 1974-2012

Willetts pointed out the crucial role of demography.

When births spiked after the war, it was thought this new generation would struggle due to the competition for jobs and resources.

But the reverse turned out to be true. Being a big generation meant faster economic growth and more lobbying power. "Our slice of the pie might be smaller but the pie will grow faster than in the lifetimes of other cohorts," Willetts explained.

Unemployed protesters walked from Tyneside to London, tracing the footsteps of the famous Jarrow Crusade of 1936 Unemployed young people re-encted the Jarrow Crusade in 2011...

And the baby boomers are living longer, creating an imbalance between workers and retired.

It means our putative 24-year-old faces a future of a small working population supporting a large number of elderly people.

By 2035 it is projected that those aged 65 and over will account for 23% of the total population, up from 15% in 1985.

Despite austerity, the state pension has been bolstered, winter fuel payments are outside the reach of means testing, and free bus pass and TV licence retained for the elderly. At the same time the government has cut benefits in real terms and axed the Education Maintenance Allowance in England.

Jarrow Crusade in 1936 ... 75 years after Tyneside's unemployed shipyard workers marched on London

Pensioners have traditionally been portrayed as vulnerable or deserving. But it is time for a rethink, campaigners say.

In October 2011, a new group, the Intergenerational Foundation, argued that older people were "hoarding housing" and should be encouraged to downsize.

"Older generations own more than two-thirds of the nation's housing stock," says Angus Hanton co-founder of the foundation. "They have rewarded themselves with unaffordable pensions and intimidate policy makers through sheer cohort size and lobby-power."

Previously in the Magazine

Houses in Bradford

One solution is to free up family housing by offering elderly people tax breaks to move into smaller homes. The Intergenerational Foundation says more than a third of the housing stock is under-occupied, which means at least two spare bedrooms.

TV property show presenter Kirstie Allsopp says it is not fair to pick on the elderly as they usually want to hang on to their homes for their children's sake.

"It's not house hoarding. This is their home," she says. "A lot of that generation have done far more in life and taken far less than we have."

It's dangerous and misleading to talk this way, argues Dot Gibson, general secretary of the National Pensioners Convention. Poverty rates amongst the under-25s and the over-65s both stand at 20%. There are also many shared concerns between young and old such as a lack of suitable housing, she says.

"What this artificial generational conflict fails to recognise is that different generations are already helping out each other inside the family - whereas the real division in our society is between rich and poor."

Gibson alludes to the unofficial redistribution of wealth of parents helping children with their mortgage. But a report for the Resolution Foundation On borrowed time? argued that while bequests like this will play a role, many elderly people may consume their wealth rather than passing it on, especially for long-term care.

"Given that it is lower-income pensioners who are most likely to need to draw down their housing equity in this way, we might expect their [often] lower-income families to be less likely to benefit from inheritance," the report predicted.

It comes down to fairness, says James Sefton, professor of economics at Imperial College Business School, who has done economic forecasts at the Treasury. Government debt is stacking up for the young. Meanwhile those born 1945-65 have lived through times of unprecedented plenty.

"If you think about the baby boom generation they lived through peace and unparalleled prosperity. You'd struggle to explain why that generation should be able to leave huge debts to the next generation."

View from the streets

Sophie Leonard, producer of BBC Three's People Like Us, filmed in Manchester:

In 2004, Harpurhey in Manchester was labelled the most deprived neighbourhood in England after scoring lowest in an Indices of Deprivation report. Things have definitely improved, but 50% of adults there have no GCSEs or higher qualifications and it is still considered a high crime area.

But what is life really like behind the headlines and government statistics?

Life can indeed be tough for the young residents, but it's simplistic to assume that this is the experience of everyone in the area. Many of the people we met were resilient, resourceful and ambitious young people determined to make the most of their lives, or turn difficult pasts around - from 20-something entrepreneurs who had set up their own businesses, to aspiring dance teachers and single mums committed to giving their kids happier childhoods than their own.

And they were often doing so with captivating wit and enthusiasm.

So why are the young not taking to the streets?

They're too busy trying to get by, argues Caroline Mortimer, a recent graduate. "We're aware of the problems of an ageing population. But we can't think about pensions and buying houses because we've got to get an actual job and pay the rent."

She argues that the notion of "respecting your elders" may also have blunted the desire to take on the baby boomers. And there's still an attitude that young people are "ungrateful", she believes. "Older people are worried about their own children but not other people's kids."

And, of course, while the economic situation may look grim, young people do have some advantages over previous generations.

Their world has opened up massively. Expectations are that young people will start work and settle down later. This leaves them free to travel and the costs are much lower than 50 or even 30 years ago.

A return flight to Johannesburg might have cost £500 in 1980. By 2008 it was £505, which allowing for inflation was a massive reduction in real terms. A return to Sydney was £716. In 2008 it was £699.

Then there's the field of consumer electronics. In the 1970s and 1980s buying a television was expensive. Having access to entertainment and information was limited.

Computers were exotic and pricey. And that was before you could even go online. "I remember buying my first computer in about 1984," says technology writer Jonathan Margolis. "It was an Amstrad 9512 and cost £400 in Dixons. It was about 6 weeks' wages and considered a huge bargain."

Now you can pick up a laptop for as little as £100. Today nearly all a person's entertainment needs can be found on something that didn't exist 30 years ago - the mobile phone.

But these blandishments may be seen as inadequate compensation for the economic hardships. And baby boomers get the same gadgets and cheap travel.

The generational squeeze hasn't hit home yet, says Sefton. But it's coming. The solution may be for the better off in that generation taking over responsibility for their own health and social care, he argues. Rich countries - Norway, South Korea, Singapore - have set up investment funds to provide for future generations.

You could argue this is just boom and bust writ large. The economy grows, baby booms happen. You can't penalise a generation that was lucky. Willetts, who is now the Universities Minister, disagrees. Demography makes it too big a gap.

"When you look at the hard financial facts of the houses we own and the pensions we've built up, it's a big challenge to the baby boomer generation to which I belong."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    as an oldie and a fully paid up member of the bank of mum and dad...young people get a raw deal these days....swamped by rules regulations...low paid immigrants...poor education....rubbish leaders...I urge any young person to look to go overseas if they can get help to do so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    I'll be leaving this country to avoid the mess the older generations tried to dump on us. Anybody young who knows what's best is leaving the UK, there is literally no hope for a return to prosperity now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    I do feel for young people not being able to get on the housing ladder. However, they all seem to be able to afford to go out and get bladdered at the weekends, have the latest mobile phones, race around in customised cars, and a lot of them still smoke themselves silly. Both of us work full time and still have to stick to a fairly modest lifestyle.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    "Ah, another politics of envy statement; how the babyboomers "have no rights" to live in the home that they've worked and saved for, for years."

    The babyboomers have rights - but with rights come responsibilities. I am watching that generation disproportionately consume the limited resources available to society without taking any responsibility for the kind of society they will leave behind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    This planet has limited resources and an increasing population. The introduction of the age discrimination act now means it's impossible to remove old people from their jobs and that is clogging up the job market with an ageing population. As more and more young people fail to see a productive future society is destined for a violent revolution unless action is taken.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    I don't like the generalistion that those of us born in the early 60s had an easy ride. For starters we had record unemployment in out teens and 20s (I left school with no job, ditto my OH on graduating). I had to move to London in 1984 for work. We worked long hours and saved hard to get our first home, that meant no holidays or social life at 24. I've only been solvent since my late 40s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.


    I'm sure its tough and I wish you all the best in trying to resolve it. But don't fall into the trap of blaming the young.

    Utlimately its the same story it always has been - the divide is between those that hold wealth and power and the vast majority of us that don't.

    All those other divisions just make it easier for the few to continue wielding their power and wealth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    I see a lot of talk about 'in my day', 'in generation XYZ's day'

    While we should always remember and learn from the past, perhaps we should stop dismissing the problems of today by pointing out the problems of the past...

    24, male, renting, MSc, full-time job

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    My son at 30 earns far more than my wife or I ever did. He worked hard at school, worked hard at university (at a subject of practical use), got a job and paid to do his own master's degree. You can't just sit around waiting for somebody else to do things for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    "Have young people never had it so bad?"

    Well, I'm not tilling fields at dawn, walking 5 miles to work in a mine, being drafted to fight a war, or living off bread and dripping.

    On the other hand, I have a colour TV, a phone which accesses the sum of human knowledge, only work 9 hours a day, get the occasional foreign holiday and can afford ice-cream.

    So, I'm going to have to go with 'No'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    133. yjjb
    @ 124 I agree. My parents sold their house to provide a deposit for my sister and I. No doubt I will do the same for my children. Parents need to stop making excuses and act like parents. Do your best for your children.

    Part of the role of a parent is to enable children to become independent adults. Not encourage them to remain dependent children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Our legacy to the youtth is:

    An economy buckling under the weight of the welfare state.
    Increasingly Over priced education.
    A debased currency, eliminating a chance of saving.
    A ponzie scheme of health care.
    Huge national borrowings, spent by us on things like Olympic Games and bank bailouts, and is required to be repaid by them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    BBC choose an item on the young, when the cause of present crisis, credit rating agencies are being sued by USA government

    Its ridiculous that these rating agency criminalshavenot been prosecuted for the BIGGEST DESTRUCTIVE financial fraud in human history. Their defence, is that their ratings are ONLY "opinion"

    Well they used their opinions to sell £BILLIONS of FRAUDULENT investments

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    To151, who claims there's never been as many people employed in the UK. That's what the figures say but in the Gaurdian it pointed out the ONS include those on the work programme and in mandatory work for your dole jobs as employed. This is why the figures look like employment is sky high when in actual FACT it's the opposite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    I've been saying for years that house prices are too high. They are only worth what people will pay for them and the only way from here is down. If you think the downturn was bad, just wait until millions are in negative equity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Our expectations of a finer lifestyle have far exceeded our financial capabilities. By design, why do you (all of us) think we don't live in a land of kings, lords and peasants? Because at some point in history, somebody realised that letting us aspire to a more afluent lifestyle would be more beneficial to the system than torturing us for taxes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Young people may not have it easy, but they do have far to much Commercial 'must haves' in their world. I'm all for inspiring to enjoy life, but you don't need bling and gadget trinkets- some need to be 'real' to coin the phrase... at least students on average are trying still- there is hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Two points. First remember David Willets book is not an independent analysis as he has Conservative policies to justify.

    Second, I joined the labour market in 1975 after a Phd and had to move to London from north east as it was the only place there were jobs. Life is rarely easy for the young.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    "Have young people never had it so bad?"

    What kind of an insensitive question is this ???
    Yes. WWI and WWII. Millions of young people died for nothing.

    Today, young people in EU can set out and look for their fortune ANYWHERE in the EU.
    When I was young, I was lucky to have email exchanges with Prof in USA universities.
    In my dad's youth, he was lucky to leave the town.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Rent is cheaper because more people rent..... If more people in the UK rented, the cost of doing so would be brought down.
    Something of an oxymoron? Renting is generally NOT cheaper than in the UK. Many private landlords bought those properties with a "buy-to-let" mortgage and so expect their tenants to pay the mortgage PLUS a profit. Why don't you try studying economics?


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