Today’s protests will be mainly read as anger at the hike in student fees resulting from the government’s massive withdrawal of funding from higher education. Very important issues, to be sure. But the issue at stake is broader, even, than the debate over whether higher education is a public good. Refusal to pay for higher education is just one part of an ongoing, broad-ranging assualt on future generations by those currently in positions of power.
Lord Young’s panned comments that people had ‘never had it so good’ is revealing, not just of an out-of-touch toff at the centre of power, but because the ‘never had it so good’ generations are continuing to live at the expense of today’s youth. The phrase comes, of course, from PM Harold MacMillan’s speech in 1957 – a time of widely rising prosperty that set the scene for the baby boomers‘ hedonistic consumption in the 1960s and 70s. A few everyday observations show the extent of changes benefits enjoyed by the boomers at the exepense of the current crop of university students:
1. Cheap mortgages and housing booms: in the UK home ownership is now seen as the norm, at least aspirationally, but there are undoubtedly limits to how far the price of property can be inflated. The days of cheap credit for 100% mortgages are surely numbered. Rather than a breif blip in the housing market the increasing difficulties faced by first time buyers signal only two possibilities: either a genuine crash in house prices or a vast increase in the proportion of income that those currently outside of home ownership will need to pay on rents or mortgages. The government will do everthing in their power to avoid the first option.
2. Externalising environmental costs: enironmentalists rightly demand that the environmental costs of the full lifecycle of products become internalised into the prices of those products. Small gains have been made in this direction but much more needs to be done, and recycling practices will have to move away from ‘dump it on developing countries’ as those countries become more powerful. Moreover, the economic costs of decades of uncontrolled consumption of artifically cheap goods in the rich world will fall on today’s younger generations in the form of environmental clean up costs and dealing with resource depletion and climate change.
3. Generous pensions: the problems that come with an aging population are widely recognised as national health bills increase and pension funds, both public and private, are struggling with a future in which many more people will be pulling fund out than those putting funds in. Avoiding a crash in the current value of pension funds is probably one of the better justifications for ‘quantitative easing’ policies (a.k.a. slash welfare and direct the proceeds to financiers and shareholders). But significant rises in the retirement age and, more importantly, much less generous pensions for todays youth seem inevitable in all baby boom countries. The shift from linking penions to Conumer Price Index (rather than the RPI) to take account of inflation means essentially that no account will be taken of rises in housing costs and council tax in determining penioners income.
Painting this picture of intergenerational injustice is not to belittle the importance of intragenerational inequalities. The ‘never had it so good’ generations undoubtedly experienced the benefits of housing booms, cheap consumption and generous pensions very unevenly and period of crisis saw – particularly in the early 1980s – millions thrown out of this system of economic ease. Those who are wealthy can be expected to pass on their good fortune, but for many, who are struggling or merely getting by there won’t be enough to offer comfort to their offspring. A bleak image of rising inequality emerges where many of today’s youth find themselves saddled with years of debt for education, the repayments for which will have to compete with incresaed housing costs, paying for their parents’ retirment and trying to put aside something for their own pensions. Today’s protesters will rightly be angry at the impending cuts, they should demand a wholescale shift in the attitude of politicians to correct yesterday’s mistakes in a way that at last puts the interests of future generations centre stage.
UPDATE: Just been reminded there’s a book on exactly this topic, where Ed Howker and Shiv Malik argue that a Jilted Generation – those born after 1979 – has generally been very hard done by. Looks like another one for the reading pile.