Magazine article The Spectator

The War on Pensioners

Magazine article The Spectator

The War on Pensioners

Article excerpt

Young people are being taught to resent their elders on the basis of tendentious claims and alarmist statistics

Who controls the media in Britain? Depending on your political outlook, you might answer: the Conservatives, the liberal-left chattering classes, Rupert Murdoch or the BBC. But if the coverage of the elderly is anything to go by, then we can perhaps agree on one thing: the headlines are decided by a cohort of 25- to 45-year-olds who believe that other people's parents and grandparents -- a.k.a. Britain's pensioners -- have stolen their future, dashed their dreams and nabbed all the plush property.

How else to account for a headline such as 'No pay rise? Blame the baby-boomers' gilded pension pots' and a plethora of articles maintaining that pensioners have 'never had it so good', at the expense of the young, who will be 'boomeranging' back to their childhood beds, too poor to buy a home until they are in their own straitened dotage. The source for one recent wave of generational alarmism was a report published by the Resolution Foundation, a generally laudable outfit which focuses on low incomes.

The Resolution Foundation has a new boss: David Willetts, a former Tory minister and a pioneer of generational jihad. Five years ago he wrote the set text on the subject, The Pinch , subtitled 'How the baby-boomers took their children's future -- and why they should give it back'. Thankfully, he made little headway selling this argument to the Prime Minister and Chancellor, but his thesis suits his new thinktank, which has not been averse to a little granny-bashing.

But this was as nothing compared to the headlines generated by a recent report from that fount of economic truth, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and a lecture by its director, Paul Johnson. Here is a taste: 'Pensioners earning more than the average worker' (Independent ); 'Why pensioners are probably earning more than you are' (City AM ); 'Pensioners have more cash than those in work' (Times ). Again, we are invited to believe -- in effect -- that the young are broke because the old are rich.

The report argues that the increase in average pensioners' incomes since the crash has outstripped the increase in the income of working households -- ergo, pensioners have been unfairly protected. It was the latest restatement of a familiar theme: Britain is now a gerontocracy, with the government shamelessly favouring the old over the young.

But this is only part -- and a very partial part -- of the story. While pensioners' income has risen more than that of workers, it rose from a much lower base. There is still a gap of around 25 per cent between the average worker's income (£28,000 a year) and that of the average pensioner (£21,000). The UK state pension languishes far below that provided in most developed countries, and it is all that many pensioners have to live on.

Some of the media reports got around those awkward facts by talking about 'net' income. Pensioners were deemed to be better off (even described in some reports as 'earning more') than the average worker because they were assumed to have lower outgoings, notably on housing costs and dependants.

This argument is bogus in almost every respect. Even if most of those receiving pensions own their own homes, this does not relieve them of housing costs. They may no longer be paying a mortgage (at a time, by the way, when interest rates are the lowest they have been for more than a generation) but they still face maintenance bills on properties that are often older and more expensive to keep up than more recently built housing. …

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