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 635.

    Funny isn't it that young people going off to university can apply for means-tested loans (money they have to pay back), and yet the government will quite happily give money away to pensioners without a hint of means testing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 634.

    "What is needed is realistically priced housing (3-3.5 x av. salary)"


    Agreed, but is it achievable? Also, 20 years ago it was 3x salary but interest was at 15%.
    The point though is that as long as someone is willing to pay 5,6 or 10x salary then they will get the property, and so the person out bid there places an inflated value on the next house down to secure it and so on

  • rate this

    Comment number 633.

    Married Couple both 25, she's self employed will stop working soon 1st child due April, I earn with 2 jobs 22.5k PA. (£1450 per month)
    2 bed flat Rent £950 p/m, Utility Bills £200, C/Tax £155, Car fuel + Insurance £200, C/Card + Loan (my fault) £300 = £1805 p/m.
    Local Childcare £900 p/m - Just Saying

  • rate this

    Comment number 632.

    D.Willets and the rest of the this coalition of the right will derive much amusement from the angst being expressed on HYS against the 'Baby Boomer' generation by the under 30s.
    The social and economic policies pursued by the Tories and Nulabor(endorsed by the Orange Book Lib-Dems) since the late '70s are the reason for the lack of jobs, housing and opportunities for the younger generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 631.

    Scrougers aren't just youth's in tracksuits, let's consider the Royal Family for instance, or MP's who turn up for work when they want to or bankers who just rob hard working taxpayers. This should be the focus of our discontent, not turning this into an old vs young debate, fact of the mater is both old and young have some very hard times ahead and not many options.

  • rate this

    Comment number 630.

    "Rent is cheaper because more people rent. Supply & Demand. If more people in the UK rented, the cost of doing so would be brought down."

    You've just described the exact opposite of supply and demand. In reality, increasing demand pushes up prices, as does decreasing supply. I thought that was simple but apparently not. Please don't talk about things you clearly know nothing about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 629.

    To say that the baby-boomers 'took our future' isn't helpful. They took opportunities avalible to them, not understanding the consequences - no one ever expects the good times to end, only get better, which was the spirit of the time. Would my generation do differently if we were alive then? Probably not. So rather than blaming one another, how about we work together and learn from past mistakes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 628.

    It comes back to this: Manufacturing.

    Younger gen have higher aspirations & expectations. To many want to muck about at University.

    We need to bring back manufacturing & export to build our economy. Some of our younger they need to accept the fact that factory work is all they are going to get...

    Industry will then drive the building of homes for its workers and the prices will fall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 627.

    We have seven children and neither of us has been able to find work since leaving school. The government is capping benefits at £26K and also stopping inflation linking. The system has it in for you if you are poor, they just want to make you poorer. It can't possibly have been harder for any previous generation. Where do you find a job that pays more than the social?

  • rate this

    Comment number 626.

    I'm not sure young people's problems today are worse then before, every generation has had its challenges.

    What seems to be different though is that we (employers, communities and Government) are not giving them any support, in fact its being taken away.

    If we don't do more to help now I dread to thing where the UK will be in 15 years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 625.

    i feel sorry for the babies being born who are unwanted and will have it even worse than this generation. How long before someone does something about child/teenage poverty., If you are certain people you get housed, you get other opportunities but if youre not these types of people you seem to lose out,

  • rate this

    Comment number 624.

    University is going downhill.

    Only do a degree if it is relevant if not - DON'T

    Im 20 working in Insurance, went to uni and dropped out quickly as i knew the degree would not be relevant, 4 months later im in a Full time job. I may be lucky...

  • rate this

    Comment number 623.

    People don’t have rights to jobs and they don’t have rights to medical care or rights to education. What you have is a right to your life. That’s what you have. We’re told that’s not compassionate. But if you look at all of history you’ll find out that the most uncompassionate system of all is socialism and welfarism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 622.

    it sounds like those who got lucky, (can't have been planned by the politicos, they don't have the tallent), are actualy to blame for this mess.
    so, we are short of housing, benefits are shrinking along with the economy, social tensions are the only thing on the rise, well that and executive pay packets and/or bonuses.who to blame?
    not those in power.
    lets blame the man/woman in the street.

  • rate this

    Comment number 621.

    Totally agreed - that is another major problem; the selfishness of current land owners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 620.

    No way would I would not want to be a young person in today's labour market. But let's not overlook the considerable financial contributions that many of my generation - born 1950 - are now making to help their kids along the way. Nothing wrong with that, but we now have a situation where many older parents are compromising their own old age to help youngsters especially with home ownership.

  • rate this

    Comment number 619.

    Not all of the younger generation are lazy. I'm 24 years old, worked full time since 18 and have a mortgage on my own home, all whilst paying for a wedding without getting into debt. It's all about priorities and if your prepared to work hard, you'll reap the benefits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 618.

    24 and live at home with my parents. The sad reality that I won't be able to buy my own house until I'm 27-28. I am however lucky enough to have a fairly well paid IT job with good career prospects; I'm frantically trying to save up 30k for deposit for a house. I refuse to rent; just wish house prices would fall and the government would do more for first time buyers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 617.

    The failure is that we have allowed government to remove from us the ability to look after and be responsible for ourselves"

    As I've suggested you could always go and live on a desert island somewhere, completely unencumbered by the demands of living in a civilised society and build your own life on your own. You could even become a cowrie shell trillionaire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 616.

    No surprises here - when you increase retirement age, then the people who would have been replaced by the younger generation cannot go anywhere, therefore stagnation. The higher the retirement age the more young people out of work - obvious


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