Baby Boomers. No-one likes us, we don’t care
2010 has seen the publication of number of books blaming the so-called ‘Baby Boomer’ generation for a multitude of sins. The general argument is summarised by Robert Colville, writing in the Telegraph (September 1st): “Via demographic accident and bloody-minded selfishness, the Baby Boomers have come to monopolise the country’s wealth, politics and culture…leaving their children nothing but debt.”
This debate started earlier in the year, with launch of ‘The Pinch – How the Baby Boomers Stole their Children’s Future’ by David Willetts – now a Government Minister. This is, overall, a well-argued and interesting economic and social discourse (as you’d expect from someone with the nickname ‘Two Brains’). However, the argument gets taken into the realms of inter-generational warfare with a new book called ‘Jilted Generation’, by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik. And it sounds like other books on the subject out around now share a similar theme - ‘What did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us’ by Francis Becket, and ‘It’s all their Fault’ by Neil Boorman.
On the face of it, there is a very good case to be made. The facts are, apparently, undeniable. A large number of people (how many, it’s not clear) within a certain age group (i.e. those currently aged 46 – 65) have benefited from educational and social mobility, generous pension schemes, and property inflation. However, these conditions do not now exist to anything like the same extent, meaning that those younger than 46 will not benefit in anything like the same way as we ‘Baby Boomers’. Furthermore, the Government has created unprecedented levels of debt which it will take the State many years to pay off. And all the time, like a ticking bomb, the population continues to age, meaning a smaller proportion of the population working away to pay for it all.
And who or what is responsible for all this? The so-called Baby Boomers themselves, according to these writers, that’s who. And that’s where I disagree. It is an undeniable fact that there was a peak in birth rates between 1945 and 1964, creating a so-called ‘baby boom’. It is also the case that, overall, fings ain’t what they used to be for people younger than this. But I disagree with just about everything else. Here is my case:
1. There is no such group as ‘Baby Boomers’ in the UK. Everyone currently aged between 46 and 65 shares a period of time. Period. This group does not share a common set of attitudes, behaviours and lifestyle characteristics. Importantly, it does not have a shared identity: I have never heard anyone in the UK call themselves a ‘Baby Boomer’. People of this age group are as complex and diverse as any other age group, by any criteria you care to apply. The concept of ‘Baby Boomers’ originated in the USA, with a very different economic and social history - and as far as I’m concerned, it stays there.
2. It is undeniable that many people of this age group have benefited disproportionately from an extremely fortunate set of economic and social circumstances. However, to label an entire age group as having done so is to deal in averages, a weak statistical basis for any argument. For example, more than 30% of people aged 50-65 are unemployed. More than 50% of people in this age group are worried about how they will support themselves in retirement. Many are disabled, disadvantaged and poor – as in other age groups. It is true that some people are very wealthy – but so are people in other age groups. There are just more of them aged 46-65.
3. Because there is no such self-defined group as ‘Baby Boomers’, it is illogical to suggest that this ‘group’ acting together against an explicit or implicit agenda was somehow responsible for the set of circumstances we now find ourselves in. Some of the people responsible may fit within this age group (Tony Blair, say) but many others do not – the whole of the massively influential Thatcher Government, for example. And in any case, is the situation we now find ourselves in mainly attributable to UK-based individuals or groups of people? What about globalisation and the massive changes it has exerted on so many of our old assumptions and certainties? And isn’t this as much about attitudes to education, family and social mobility – which are not defined by age.
And if there were any truth in the idea that a whole group of people born at the same time had deliberately disadvantaged the next generation, would I care? Well I’ll tell you – but first, let me change out of my yellow polyester golf slacks, go jogging and cycling along the seafront with my still-very-attractive wife, both smiling inanely and displaying immaculate white teeth. then drive my sports car back home to my gated community, put on some smart leisure clothing, and chuckle genially with my extended family. Then I’ll tell you…