Magazine article Soundings

Generation Wars

Magazine article Soundings

Generation Wars

Article excerpt

Ed Howker and Shiv Malik, Jilted Generation: How Britain Bankrupted Its Youth, Icon 2010

David Willets, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - and Why They Should Give It Back, Atlantic 2010

As the post-war baby boomers approach retirement, there has been an explosion of interest in the financial and economic circumstances of different age cohorts, and more generally the relationships between different generations within society, This intellectual enterprise is, of course, not distinct from the experience of financial crisis and recession; the generational turn offers a unique perspective on - and even a partial explanation for - the country's economic woes.

The theme of both Jilted Generation and The Pinch is that the baby-boom generation - born between 1945 and 1965 - benefited from a fairly unique set of historical circumstances, and rather than seeking to share their good fortune with their children's generation, they have pulled the ladder up. Yet their conclusions are reached from very different starting points. Both books document the myriad problems today's young people will encounter in trying to find jobs, start families, get onto the housing ladder, or even simply 'have a say'; but whereas Howker and Malik concentrate on associating the ascent of the baby boomers with a very recent valorisation of individualism and unfettered free markets, Willets instead explains the apparent intergenerational theft orchestrated by the boomers with reference to social structures that are many centuries or even millennia old. For Willets, it is precisely the size of the boomer cohort that is to blame, not their politics.

Jilted Generation's mission is to bust the myths surrounding the popular understanding of young people today. The reason that young people are struggling in the job market is not because of their inherent fecklessness but rather because of the drying up of opportunities. An examination of housing is the flagship contribution of Jilted Generation to the intergenerational relations debate, and it is hard to disagree with Howker and Malik's findings that the decline in construction, an increase in prices despite falling standards and sizes, the sale of public housing, and the end of tax relief for mortgage interest payments, have all combined to make buying a home a daunting and almost impossible prospect for many young people. This is exacerbated by the appalling state of the private rental market. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, however, is Howker and Malik's treatise on the 'postponement of adulthood', a thread which features throughout. It is not simply that young people struggle to buy a house, find employment and start saving; more importantly, these struggles delay their attainment of full adulthood. This is something that may affect their entire lives, and moreover, may have an impact on society in general rather than simply the individuals directly affected. The increasing costs and declining value of higher education - which has become perhaps the defining issue of youth politics - is of course an important feature of Jilted Generation, but Howker and Malik are just as interested in the less privileged members of their generation, whose disadvantage has been compounded by an economy rigged in favour of the boomers.

Whereas Howker and Malik's inquiry invariably leads them to a left-wing critique of boomer politics, David Willets in contrast starts unambiguously from the right. …

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