‘The geographic expression of this generational divide is thwarting the left’s chances of electoral success.’ Young and old people wait for a bus after Brighton’s 2018 Pride parade. Photograph: Olly Newport/Guardian Community

The war between boomers and millennials benefits neither side


In today’s circular economy precariousness crosses the generational divide

Sitting in a Wakefield coffee shop, three women in their early 70s, each of whom was raised in a Labour family, discuss the life prospects for today’s younger generation. “It was as hard for us then as it is for young people now,” one says. Harder actually, interjects another woman, listing the home comforts now provided by TVs and washing machines, and the consumer perks accessible by credit card. The women say they’re sympathetic to younger generations, but that the young need to work harder, not rely on handouts. “We are expected to pay for them now,” as one woman puts it.

All three women voted Conservative in 2019 – they wanted Brexit done and didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister – turning the West Yorkshire seat blue for the first time since 1932. Wakefield, a city with a population that is ageing faster than others, is just one brick in the wall of northern Labour constituencies that crumbled on 12 December.

This sharp political divide along generational lines isn’t unique to Wakefield. Across the UK, 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain in the EU in 2016, whereas 66% of those aged 65-74 voted to leave. In the following year’s snap general election, 66% of first-time voters aged 18-19 backed Labour and 58% of those aged 60-69 supported the Conservatives. In 2019, 56% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted Labour, while 67% of the over-70s voted blue. Put it all together and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that politics is currently driven by older people, against the wishes of the young.

Political differences across generations reflect social attitudes over issues such as immigration, with one-third of people voting for Brexit in 2016 to “regain control” over the UK’s borders. However, the age-related voting divide is acutely driven by economic disparities. Though it’s often portrayed as a generational blame game, of wealth-hoarding boomers set against millennials who fritter away wages on avocado toast, economic polarisation is produced by politics, not by people.

Born in the postwar period, baby boomers reaped the advantages of free education, thriving industry, stable jobs and affordable homes. This age cohort might put good fortune down to long hours and elbow grease, but structural advantages are often invisible to those who benefit from them. Now, as a result of the marketisation of the education system, deindustrialisation, insecure work and a skyrocketing housing market, the economic outcomes for younger generations are worse than previous ones. They’re underpaid, insecure, in debt and often forced to find work far from home in the UK’s major cities. Of course, other advantages, driven by class and race, significantly shape realities at either end of the age divide, but access to economic security is undoubtedly the main driver of intergenerational inequality.

The geographic expression of this generational divide is thwarting the left’s chances of electoral success. With the youth vote onboard, it’s tempting to think that time is on Labour’s side. But our first-past-the-post electoral system is producing governments determined by constituencies outside of the UK’s major cities. As towns are drained of younger people pursuing work and education in metropolitan areas, remaining older voters gain disproportionate power.

While intergenerational inequality is often presented as a zero-sum battleground between old and young, with book titles such as How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future, the economy is not zero-sum. Boomers see millennials in precarious work and worry that their low incomes are failing to provide the necessary tax revenues to support them in their twilight years. They’re right to worry: research from the Resolution Foundation confirms this sentiment, showing that the rate at which current earnings are growing won’t fund future welfare.

Fears among older voters are compounded by the sight of overburdened hospitals, and cuts to social care. As one 64-year-old tutor in Wakefield told me: “It’s about my future, too. I’ve got another 20 years, maybe.” He explains his Conservative vote as self-interested, but only through lack of choice. “Maybe I am being selfish and just looking out for myself,” he says. “But if we don’t do it, the government won’t do it for us.” For many boomers, protecting homes and pensions in the face of a declining welfare state is paramount.
‘Now, as a result of insecure work and a skyrocketing housing market the economic outcomes for younger generations are worse than previous ones.’ A young person looks at property in an estate agent’s window. Photograph: Alamy

The socialist historian RH Tawney captured a wider sense of responsibility for future generations when he said of education: “What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children.” It was assumed that the fortunes of each generation would improve on the last, but also that such wealth increases would be ploughed back in taxes to support the elderly. Rolling back the welfare state during her tenure as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher proclaimed: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Thatcher’s policies drove a wrecking ball through the bonds of social collectivism across generations, replacing it with individual and familial responsibility. Decades later, exacerbated by austerity, the memory of this social contract is not easily recalled.

We won’t reignite intergenerational solidarity if we entrench resentment across age groups. The economic divide is real, but its systemic causes are often ignored by stories of millennials as workshy snowflakes who malign the elderly. To compound the problem, it’s likely that the Conservatives will solidify their older base, which has now reached uncharted areas in the north.

What might shift the dynamics is creating shared intergenerational spaces. That could be care home nurseries, such as those already running in London and Essex, or homeshare schemes for the elderly to rent out affordable rooms in exchange for a helping hand. We should harness the different struggles across generations into a force for unity, before age divisions break our politics for good.

• Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author