Mind the age gap

Since the financial crisis, a huge generational divide has opened up in politics, displacing class as predictor of voting behaviour. But Keir Milburn, author of Generation Left, argues that a left politics of the commons is well placed to bridge this divide.

April 8, 2019 · 15 min read

Increasingly, the old and the young seem to be living in different worlds. This is true financially, culturally and politically. The different generations regard each other with mutual incomprehension. It’s a gulf that’s trapping the world in a state of impasse just when drastic action is needed to address our multiple crises: political, economic, and environmental.

This divide between generations is most readily visible in the political sphere. Young people are much more likely to vote left and hold left-wing views, while older generations tend to vote right and hold conservative social, and increasingly political, opinions. At the 2017 UK general election people were 9 per cent more likely to vote Conservative for every ten years on their age.

Perhaps you think this is normal. Aren’t young people always more left-wing? Not necessarily. In the 1983 election, for example, the Conservatives led Labour by 10 percentage points among 18-34 year olds. Indeed, the recent political generation gap is not only historically unprecedented – it has opened up very quickly. The 2017 election saw a startling 97 percentage point gap in voting intention between the youngest and oldest voter age groups. At the 2010 general election that gap had been just 15 points.

The picture is similar in many other countries, with the US the most obvious example. Bernie Sanders may not have got the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential election, but he secured over 70 per cent of the under-30s vote against Hillary Clinton. The election to Congress of 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and her subsequent phenomenal rise to prominence, was overwhelmingly driven by young voters. By September 2018, 48 per cent of Democrat-supporting ‘millennials’ (aged 22–37) were calling themselves either ‘socialist’ or ‘democratic socialist’.

It’s not difficult to see why young people are disillusioned with the current situation. They have suffered an unprecedented decline in their living standards and prospects. In the UK millennials are likely to be the first generation for hundreds of years who will earn less than the two generations who came before. This isn’t just a prediction. It’s already evident.

By 2016 the average millennial working through their twenties had already earned £8,000 less than the average of the preceding generation. The huge increase in house prices through the 1990s and 2000s were of benefit primarily to older generations. Declining wages, which have hit the young more severely, along with post-crisis tightening of borrowing conditions, have put home ownership well out of reach of most young people. The result is a ‘Generation Rent’, who will spend an average of £44,000 more on housing in their twenties than the baby boomer generation did.

Accelerating disparity

Some of these are long-term trends, the effects of a gradual intensification of neoliberalism over the past 40 years. As conditions of work and life have worsened over time, they have affected later cohorts more severely. Older generations were employed on better terms and conditions, retained better pension rights, and benefited from rising house prices. The disparity has been massively accelerated by the economic crisis that began in 2007. In the UK, all of the £2.7 trillion increase in aggregate wealth recorded since 2007 can be accounted for by the over-45s, with two-thirds accruing to the over-65s. In contrast, wealth has fallen by around 10 per cent among those aged 16–34.

When we look at these statistics we can see, in fairly crude terms, how the political views of young and old have diverged because the economic interests they are acting on have also diverged. As real wages have stagnated since the early 1980s any increases in the wealth of ordinary people has come through rising asset prices – primarily through home ownership, but pension funds invested in the stock market have played a part as well. In this way the interests of older people have become increasingly aligned with the performance of the financial sector.

The predominant government response to the crisis of 2007-8 has been to lavish the financial sector with support paid for by public spending cuts and wage restraints. As this has kept asset prices high, the older generations have benefited disproportionately.

Of course, that doesn’t mean all is rosy for the elderly. For a start, a quarter of pensioners don’t own their own homes, while 1.6 million live in poverty.

In any case, while a crude accounting of economic interests may provide an accurate account of how we got where we are, the lack of nuance becomes problematic when it comes to finding ways out. To address this, we need to change the way we think about political generations. Generational dynamics are dominating the political situation, yet the generational concepts with which we are familiar are often nonsense.

The elderly are comforted with stories of ‘generation snowflake’, which says young people are too over-entitled to face up to the problems of the world, while in reality the young are facing the biggest drop in living standards in many years. On the other hand, more serious generational analysis has been hamstrung by its use of categories, such as ‘baby boomers’, ‘generation X’ and ‘millennials’, derived from the marketing industry.

What generates a generation?

Generally, when people talk about generations, in reference to societies rather than individual families, they’re referring to all those born within roughly a 20-year period. If we assume that the core childrearing age lasts around 20 years, let’s say from 18 to 38, and note that birth to childrearing age has a somewhat similar span, then the logic is easy to see.

But there’s a problem here. Births take place continuously, every day, so how do you determine when one generation ends and another starts? It is usually assumed that one generation follows another in a sequential order. If we accept this 20-year pattern, then the only concept of generations that makes sense is one based on demographic dynamics. Birth rates vary and so generations can be aligned with either particularly large or particularly small age cohorts.

In fact, we should step back and start from the recognition that generational differences are not always prominent. The last time a generation gap was presented as a dominant political issue was during the 1960s and 1970s, when it primarily referred to a gap in cultural values. The size of the large baby boomer age cohort, who were coming of age at that time, allowed a distinct youth culture to emerge and demand attention. Indeed, the baby boomers do fit with a conception of generations as generated by demographic changes. They are a large age cohort produced by a sudden and significant increase in birth rates, which then dropped off, suddenly and significantly, 20 years later.

Yet if we dig a little deeper, even this example comes into doubt. The boundaries of the baby boomer cohort are clearly marked out by two events with dramatic demographic consequences. Its beginning is marked by the post-second world war boom in the birth rate, while its end is marked by the introduction of the contraceptive pill. As these two events occurred roughly simultaneously across most of the developed world, they explain the common demographic bulge seen across different countries. But the bookending events of the baby boomers have causes that lie outside any continuing pattern of sequential generations. It seems hard to argue, for example, that the invention and roll-out of the contraceptive pill was caused by the size of the then current age cohort. Similarly, the second world war and its end had a complex range of causes to which birth rates seem tangential. These events have demographic consequences, not causes.

From this we can make two points. First, and most straightforward, assigning generational differences to birth rates risks obscuring wider social, and indeed technological, causes. The second claim goes further. I think the very idea that generations are defined by changes in birth rates is the product of the baby boomer experience. It’s the one generation that it actually seems to fit. In fact, that concept of generations is really just a boomers’ echo, applied to subsequent cohorts despite the marginal importance of generational differences to them. The concept loses coherence the further it moves from its point of origin. Our present period has a generation gap of a very different kind and it needs a different concept of generations to account for it.

Rupture of change

My argument is this. Distinct political generations don’t come along sequentially or cyclically every 20 years. Instead they only form episodically, when conditions are right. Generational distinctions only become important when they form around events, periods of sudden, accelerated change that alter what seems politically and socially possible. It’s at these times that the normal process of adapting to change breaks down and the way a society makes sense of itself, the story it tells about itself, gets disrupted.

Older people will encounter difficulties accepting the rupture of such an event owing to our propensity to interpret new events through our own formative experiences, which tend to coalesce into a ‘natural’ view of the world. The young, on the other hand, lacking a solidified interpretive prism formed of past experience, get fresh contact with the problems the event produces and so get closer to them. Generational distinctions emerge if there are significant differences in the intellectual and psychic resources with which age cohorts encounter these events.

The structuring event of our time is the crisis of 2008. We have been in a continuing period of political and economic crisis since that point. The pre-2008 world proceeded on the basis of a particular view of the future, which consisted of steady, uneventful improvements in living standards. The looming climate crisis meant that story was always illusory but the past ten years have made a mockery of it as we’ve lurched from one unpredicted event to another: Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, and so on.

But the pre-2008 image of the future didn’t just exist in our heads. It also formed the basis for the debts and financial instruments with which our lives are entwined. And those instruments, and the institutional logics that go with them, have not gone away. If anything, our lives are even more tied up with them. For older generations, who are more likely to own property, these financial instruments might still seem to offer a viable future, but for most young people they don’t. The intrusive monitoring and rent extraction that goes along with their debts, from student loans to credit cards, increasingly seem like an imposition that disciplines and limits the lives they might hope to live.

It’s from here that we can add nuance to our earlier discussion of material interests. We always have multiple potential interests. The ones that we decide to act on are determined by what seems possible. The current generational distinctions in political opinions are rooted in differing ideas of what the future might hold.

Adulthood isn’t working

Let’s put this another way. Young people are finding it increasingly hard to attain the markers of successful adulthood. Traditionally, these included getting a ‘proper job’ – a settled place in the economy – getting married, becoming a parent and, increasingly, owning your own home. Each one of these has become more difficult to achieve, or has been pushed back much later in life, owing, in large part, to material insecurity. As the crisis peaked in 2008, one in five of 20-34 year-olds still lived with their parents in the UK; by 2015 this was up to a quarter. Levels of home ownership among young British adults have more than halved in 20 years.

Of course, these markers were never universally available or necessarily desirable, but their decline still indicates an adulthood in crisis. The solutions that are usually offered suggest removing the blockages preventing young people from moving into adulthood. I don’t think this is possible any longer and any attempt to follow that path courts disaster by setting up a generational zero-sum game. If property prices are made more affordable – by building more houses, for example – this will have to come at the cost of older generations, whose security in old age is tied into the property bubble. A generational clash like this needs to be sidestepped. That means finding new ways of guaranteeing material security in old age and reinventing what it means to be an adult.

Everything for everyone!

The value of private property is linked to scarcity. It has a rivalrous nature: either you have it or I have it. This inherent potential for dispossession is what makes property owners vulnerable to right-wing mobilisations of fear. If we can reconstruct adulthood around non-rivalrous property, then we can prevent people from turning right as they age.

Fortunately, just such a form of common property is latent in our everyday lives. Immaterial property, most notably digital property but also things such as knowledge, is non-rivalrous. The cost of producing one more copy is virtually nil. I can have it, you can have it and nobody loses out. So the natural price of digital property tends towards zero. The idea of a digital commons is intuitively grasped because it’s so close to the lived experience of young people. Even the compulsive narcissism built into capitalist platforms like Facebook can’t entirely eliminate the foundations on which it is based.

Any programme for a commons-based adulthood must facilitate the re-emergence of the digital commons. This will involve incentivising forms of collaborative production, disincentivising business models based on rent, and socialising the benefits of automation and data creation. But if the commons is to overcome the lure of property ownership, it will have to also become dominant in the rest of life. Platform cooperatives could replace parasitic capitalist platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo if existing labour law was applied with vigour. But the most crucial plank of any programme must be the massive expansion of cooperative housing and intergenerational co-housing.

This will no doubt take innovative forms of public–commons partnerships in which the commons provides the direction of travel for institutional reform. The vital advantage of the commons over most forms of public ownership is its intimate link to participative democracy. A commons is not a free for all; it needs a community to tend and govern it. Participating in the commons constitutes a training in democracy. Instead of isolated, competitive and hierarchised individuals it produces more connected, collaborative and powerful collectivities.

Even better, we don’t have to wait until the left seizes state power before we start. Powerful solidarity networks and renters’ unions, in which participants pledge to back each other over disputes with landlords and companies, can be built now. They can also act as lessons not just in democratic governance but in the basis of true security. Embedding in an active, democratic community is by far the most secure way of ensuring you will be cared for and your needs will be met.

Although we won’t completely break the hegemony of right-wing ideas among the elderly, we can certainly disrupt it and peel away a decisive minority. We need to show a convincing potential for a different kind of old age. This will mean social security provided by the public and the commons to tempt the ageing out from behind the isolating walls of private property.

But this promise will only be believed if intergenerational solidarity is also reflected in the movements, organisations and culture we build now. After all, the retired have much to offer Generation Left. They have, not least, that rarest of contemporary commodities – free time – while the young can offer sociality to help overcome the isolation and loneliness that plague old age.

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