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 975.

    To: Number 886.LeftLibertarian

    Very succinctly put and 100% correct IMO. When will ANY government start to tackle this issue? We should all be writing our MP's.

  • rate this

    Comment number 974.

    The UK is one of the finest countries in which to live in the world.

    The only problem is that most of us can't afford to live here. And the section of society which is increasingly looked to to finance the gig is shrinking, whilst being hit until they are no longer able to contribute.

    Our system of state funded capitalism (sic) only benefits the few, and is being found out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 973.

    so basically the plus side of being young now is a cheep flight out of here, well thats exactly what im going to do. i graduate next year, and im leaving, for somewhere that values the contributions i can make.

  • rate this

    Comment number 972.

    945 Bacon91
    Perhaps the previous generation were too busy paying for the generation before it? As a future generation will no doubt do for yours? Don't forget that until the advent of the welfare state, there were no such things as pensions and you worked until you dropped. Only very few owned their own houses, and many went wih their job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 971.

    #945 That, is unfair.
    Surely at the age of 21 you should have realised that life isn't fair.

    #944 should i just quit??
    Why, because someone else has no shame? Attitudes like yours speak volumes about some of the younger generation.

    I'm not surprised so many youngsters are struggling, with such defeatist attitudes it must be hard to get anywhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 970.

    "I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn. Do you Disagree? Well then, tell me how much of what you earn belongs to me - and why?"~Walter E William
    .. We will pay our own debts, you should not have to bear our costs. That is immoral.

    If I 'earn' less than you doesn't mean I'm producing less than you.
    You may be a seated office worker. cushy!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 969.

    There are 5.1 people per vacancy as you rightly say. That is not recent, it lurched up in 2008/2009 from less than 3 to more than 5. The publcity about disabled people being forced off their benefit suggests the numbers are not fudged, either.

    My point is that our unemployment rate at about 7.7% is better than most - certainly in the EU but generally in the western world

  • rate this

    Comment number 968.

    It appears on the face/facts of it that while people in a lower income state may be protected far more than they ever were by the state the basic average comparitive standard of living as decreased. Note the word comparitive, whats the point of someone saying 'we never had broadband or mobile phones when i was growing up'. All comments like that are just subjective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 967.

    What word does this jounalist live in? You get nothing for nothing in this world. Every generation faces a different set of problems and at the time it never seems easy. The problem seems to be that social commentators encourage the current young generation into a belief that they have a devine right, No one has a right. If you want something go and work for it. The migrants seems to manage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 966.

    Those "in charge" - (that's not government by the way) - will love all this bickering - divide and conquer. Keep the masses scared and they won't see the bigger picture.

  • rate this

    Comment number 965.

    Pretty short sighted argument really. The 'baby boomers' who everyone thinks have had it best will now be entering the old age social care mess. Hardly likely to be having a good time of it. I am 40 and when i left college it was straight into another recession. Things improved but now we are back in trouble. Every generation has its challenges, we dont need shoddy journalism like this really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 964.

    I am 55 and have five children between 21 and 30, they earn more than me and their lifestyle is "more expencive" than mine.
    All bar one have large debts as a result of either education or life style, both of which were thier choice.

    Personally I do not feel sorry for the youngsters of today they make choices and they must accept the consequences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 963.

    919.Simon - " ...We need to break the culture of "entitltment".

    I seem to recollect someone else saying that....

    "....It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation." M Thatcher 1987

  • rate this

    Comment number 962.

    If you want to be able to live in comfort in your old age, start living off 2/3 of your income and saving 1/3."

    Just over 50% are on, or under, the median wage of £14k. How do you propose people save anything, never mind 30%, when they have to have housing benefit just to keep a roof over their heads?

  • rate this

    Comment number 961.

    The north had this in the 1980s whilst the south east enjoyed prosperity under Thatcher: prosperity paid for by selling the nations assets (utilities, etc.), and closing the pits. The only thing we have left is the NHS, which is now being sold off. The dream of Thatcher: the service led economy, only works if people have money to spend on those services. That is why austerity will never work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 960.

    The writer doesn't mention the fact that young people have a very low attendance at the ballot box in elections in sharp contrast to the baby boomers.

    May also be why the baby-boomers have their interests better protected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 959.

  • rate this

    Comment number 958.

    The underlying problem - employment. Wages have not risen much for 20 years now in the industry I work in. This has been offset by cheap goods imported from the east and now we buy our technology and goods from our former Soviet and Chinese 'enemies'. Get manufacturing industries back in the UK and invest in the young. And aggresively tax people and companies who own more than 2 or 3houses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 957.

    @945. Bacon91
    "The UK as of 2013, is in a dire posistion...
    I am also expected to pay for the pensions, benefits and housing of the generation that caused this because they threw theirs away! That, is unfair."

    It is also complete nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 956.

    I left school, got a job and worked hard and moved on all my working life. Now it seems to be get a job and if you don't like it you just quit and don't bother looking for something else. Don't get me wrong I know it's tough out ther but there are jobs to be had. To get on in the world you have to work if you have aspriations and want to do well and have the things you are envious of in others.


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