Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Feckless oldies

Several months ago I laid into a 26 year old called Sebastian Crankshaw who had written to the London Independent saying the older generation were responsible for a series of social reforms that had ruined the country.

They had done very nicely themselves from increased civil liberties, militant trade unions and tax breaks, but then they had brought in measures to roll back the welfare state and make life much harsher for the young 'uns.

Tuition fees were brought in. The value of pensions was slashed. State benefits were chopped. And employment rights were whittled away. So youngsters like him will never enjoy the same quality of life.

Well, it was quite a surprise when Sebastian himself stumbled on my blog a few days ago and introduced himself. And said he stood by his original argument.

He had been objecting to Janet Street-Porter* boasting that oldies like her were spending all their money, largely on luxuries, and leaving their children with no inheritance. Didn't that strike me as a selfish attitude, he asked.

Well, my answer is yes and no. No in that people should be entitled to spend their money as they wish (except for taxes of course). Yes in that any responsible parent whose children were hard-up would give them a financial boost.

But going back to the 'Oldies have wrecked our country' theme, I suppose he's right in that it's today's oldies who drove through all the regressive measures that are hampering those just starting out in the world.

It's also true though that many soon-to-be-oldies like myself objected strongly to all those measures at the time and did everything we could to stop them. But our voices were simply not influential enough.

And we're still objecting to similar backward steps being taken by the so-called Labour government, particularly its doubling of the 10p tax rate, which penalises over 5 million low-earners.

My heart bleeds for young people struggling to make a decent life for themselves in the current punitive political climate. I really wish they had an easier time of it.

* Prominent journalist and ex-editor of the Independent on Sunday


Thriftcriminal said...

I think he is right in saying that the Baby Boomer generation had the best deal and myself and those youndger than me will have a much more difficult time of it. To exclusively blame it on that generation is a bit unfair, there are many factors contibuting to this comparative reduction in the quality of life for our generation (X's and Whys as I understand it). This mainly boils down to the fact that we are on a downward curve (in the western world anyway) and those in power in the oldie generation are (naturally enough) moving to protect themselves. Downward curves are never nice. Suffice to say a backlash may become inevitable depending on how steep the curve becomes.

Nick said...

Thrifty - Not sure the downward curve theory is convincing. The UK is still awash with money even if certain parts of the economy like banking and housing are temporarily flagging. There's still plenty of cash for government enthusiasms like Iraq, the ID card scheme, huge computerisation projects and new nuclear missiles. I think the real reason for all the cuts in public services is the constant drive to look tougher than the Tories in the belief that toughness wins elections. Last week's elections rather disproved that idea.

Fate's Granddaughter said...

As a 'young one' myself, I have never associated political mishaps which make my life harder with a particular generation but rather with a particular political and economic mindset.

I have also never believed for a moment that my elders had it easier than I do. In fact, I have often felt generational guilt for the amount of excess I have been 'entitled' to. The only thing I resent is the seemingly unrealistic expectations of our generation to do/have it all.

Nick said...

FG - You may be right it's more a question of political mindset. Are there any signs that younger politicians are keen to reverse all the worst reforms? I can't see any.

That's very generous of you to say we oldies haven't had it that easy. But I remember when I was an undergraduate and had everything paid for, including tuition, subsistence and travel. Unemployment benefit in the sixties and seventies was absurdly lavish and trade unions were endlessly improving wages and working conditions. Things were very different then.

Thriftcriminal said...

The primary downward curve I'm referring to is Oil. I could be wrong, but as the entire basis for our current way of life (it is unbelievable insideous, almost everything we have involves oil in some way). It was the abundant free energy that has bouyed up the baby boomers and allowed them to have luxuries like defined benefit pensions to look forward to. That and they fought for greater rights and equity, but seem to be pulling the ladder up behind them through deregulation and laisez faire capitalism. Politics has devolved into a cynical PR exercise that has no vision but panders to the principle of the focus group. I could go on, but I feel a rant building and would rather not cuase upset by clogging up your comments :-)

Thriftcriminal said...

@Fate's GD: I'm in between, I have no desire to have it all, but the desire wasn't picked up off the ground you know. You were sold it through marketing campaigns calculated to exploit the vacuum of negative freedom. Marketing campaigns devised by the boomers to increase market share and profit for shareholders (also boomers)....Gaaaah, I said I wasn't going to rant.

Nick said...

Thrifty - Ah, oil running out, now that's a serious problem. As you say, so much of our current way of life is based on it. Whether we can still maintain comfortable lifestyles with less of it, or whether people are ready for more modest lifestyles, is doubtful. And I couldn't agree more that politics is now so often just a PR exercise ignoring real needs.

I agree too about marketing campaigns selling everyone more and more unnecessary products.

Wisewebwoman said...

Lately Nick, you've been throwing these posts out that are highly thought provoking and very difficult for your commentees to reign in their rants. Moi included.
The post war years were very good for us oldies, never were the trickle down benefits of the powerful military industrial complex felt so keenly, though they were slow in coming to Ireland (for me) and I had to emigrate to Canada to really access them.
IMHO, oil, the main commodity behind this extraordinary event has now peaked and we are beginning to feel the beginning of economic devastation. Housing crisis, outsourcing to third world countries, food shortages, and on. Along with the corrupt paper wealth that fed on 'futures' et al.
I, for one, believe this is a good thing as we will reestablish our connection with the earth and each other. In time.
As to our oldie era of abundance? Many of us were like lemmings, demanding more and more driven by the madness of marketing (Hummers? Labelled clothing? Spas? Vast mansions for two people?)
It had to end, there was too much inequality and greed sucking the hell out of such finite resources.
I'll stop now.

Nick said...

www - Oil isn't necessarily linked to the other things of course. The housing crisis is due to insane lending, outsourcing to cost-cutting mania, and food shortages to biofuel production (among other things). So they're separate issues that can be solved. Oil shortage is the big nightmare and there's little sign governments are getting to grips with it. If it leads us back to simpler, less stressful lifestyles, that would be good. Yes, the decades of binge-consumption can't go on much longer.

Baino said...

Oo-er . . it's 7am here. I'll have to come back to this one!

Nick said...

Baino - Don't worry, I'm not expecting some voluminous, deeply profound comment. A couple of sentences will do! (And that applies to anyone else!)

Anonymous said...

If you can't blame the generation before you who can you blame? Your own generation? Heaven forbid ... As for inheritance, if you have already raised your children and they are adults whyever should they get any more?

Mudflapgypsy said...

My parents can spend their money on whatever they want as it is none of my business.
Spending the inheritance? How arrogant to assume that ones parents money is just being held on ones behalf and all one has to do is wait until they die to obtain it.
I would rather have my parents live longer than have any of their money.
As for the previous generation screwing the world up...well,...people in previous generations have protested about the decisions made by previous govt administrations to no avail. From what I can see greed and lust for power know no bounds. I think the problem is that those who crave power should be the very last to obtain it as they consistently prove they wield it badly.
150 odd years of the oil economy may well be grinding to a halt.
No point blaming generations past, better to prepare for the future.

Baino said...

OK I've had a a think about this and realised that blog comments are a really useless place for discussing these things. And you're a bugger for raising them !

I'm on the cusp of babyboomerism being born in 1956. After the war, our parents were inundated with new gadgets and gismos, a rebuilding after six years of blitzkreig and deprivation(My father never had a banana for six years and insisted on reminding me so until I gave him a hand of bananas from Coffs Harbour which took him six weeks to eat) They enjoyed the boom years including automatic washing machines to television and every family owning a car (we've got three). They also contributed to their own pensions, something that Australia only started in 1985 . Yep, my parents saw the advent of TV. I think many baby boomers have indulged their children because they can and it's resulted in GenX and GenY who frankly have a better work life balance. Although the younglings don't want to pass the wealth on. As for supporting the older generation . . . the sad thing is that we now expect Governments to take over this role rather than the extended family. Ok small contribution but if I started with Thrifty and the OIL thing (I agree with him by the way)..well, we'd be up all night. So, your place . .next Wednesday with the Thrifty dude . .thrash it out! (I wish) Um . .my kids will inherit all my wealth but I haven't told them yet! What happened to growing your own veg, cutting off a chooks head and subsistance existence? Rant over. "ish" Sorry. too small a space and too big a topic. *grumbles cos you live so far away*

Textual Healer said...

Hot topic - I have come across Sebastian Crankshaw before - and had mixed views about what he said. I think the hardest thing facing young people is the price of housing in the UK (together with being in debt after leaving University). I was lucky to have got a free education - I just got in on teh tail coats of that one as I was a mature student. The hous price issue creates a new social divisions in the country between those with equity and thopse without. As those with equity are in a majority I don't see this changing very quickly.

Nick said...

Apologies for raising such a provocative subject - not that I ever know which ones are going to get everyone steaming!

Conor - Indeed, who else can you blame? In fact isn't there a well-known saying that we're all ruled by the past actions of the dead? And yes, why should we expect to inherit anything?

Muddy - The fact is that inheritance is a gift, not an entitlement. And you seem to be saying the real problem here is not oldies but the lust for power and people misusing it when they get it. That's very true.

Baino - That's a good point too, baby boomers indulged themselves and their children because they were the first generation able to do so - lots of money, new gadgets, foreign holidays etc. I think it's right for governments to take the ultimate responsibility for old people - it's their job to look after vulnerable citizens. And growing your own veg and a subsistence existence is what we might all be going back to if oil and gas run out and we have to curtail our polluting lifestyles!

Hopefully Jenny and I will make it to Oz later in the year and we can have some really long discussions!

Nick said...

TH - People not being able to buy their own home is a major problem. Very hard to solve as there are so many factors causing high prices - shortage of council housing, demand exceeding supply, too-easy mortgage access, more people living alone etc. I don't see any obvious solutions.

Thriftcriminal said...

Just to be clear, I'm not blaming a generation I'm blaming policy (friedman economics and the cult of comsumption). The boomers had the happy co-incidence of being on the upward oil curve and I don't wish to state for a moment that they didn't have their challenges in life. I was raised by the previous generation (my gandparents) and I have a healthy respect for them, my gandparents grew their veg, and chopped chucks heads off. However their kids (boomer gen) are a bunch of self indulgent sods to a large degree.

Wisewebwoman said...

Another point, Nick, not to bash your comment over the head or anything ;^) but if we take the two steps back from our current way of life, the whole housing/futures/food crisis is based on oil.
The suburbs were founded on the concept of eternal happy motoring, modern agri-business is based on fertilizer and insecticide fossil fuel. Most of the mortgage crisis is now foundering on the rock of suburban bankruptcies. Etc.
Our whole way of life is based on unlimited oil and that has to change. Very very soon.

Nick said...

www - Still can't quite agree. Here's how I see it. The mortgage crisis stems from irresponsible, profit-hungry banks lending to people who couldn't pay them back - in the US mainly poor blacks and Hispanics. Food supplies were okay until rising consumption in places like China and India and food crops being switched to biofuel crops created the shortage. Most suburban bankruptcies result from credit-fuelled over-consumption.

We've hardly begun to suffer from the oil squeeze yet, except for higher prices, but when the oil squeeze does start seriously affecting our personal lifestyles, boy will we all be in trouble.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I'm not sure it's a generational thing at all. In every generation there are those who are sublimely privileged and those who work hard for everything they acquire.

In the field of women's rights, our generation paved the way for today's younger women to expect to be treated more equitably in the workplace. That still has not been accomplished, but progress was made.

It's simply too easy to focus resentment on those who are older or younger than we are and blame them for all of society's ills. That doesn't mean it's right or accurate, though.

Nick said...

Heart - Very true about women's rights, older women fought hard over that and much has been gained (though not nearly enough). I could also add gay and black equality (though there's still plenty of lingering racism). So yes, just blaming oldies is too simplistic.

John Self said...

Well I must admit that the concept of 'peak oil' is one that terrifies me so much I try not to think about it, and when I begin to, it ends up ruining my day (as it has done today, and no, it wasn't your blog that started me off!).

I haven't told Mrs Self, for instance, that the reason I'm so behind her new scheme to start growing some of our own veg, is because I am filled with anxiety that we are going to be forced into subsistence living when Mr Sainsbury no longer has the available transport fuel to stock our supermarket!

At the same time I recognise that with the scaremongering of, say, that old crank Vernon Coleman on one hand ("Civilisation will collapse... rich people will travel by horse and cart... poor people will travel by bicycle") and blithe reassurances by that other old crank Nigel Lawson on the other, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. And I recognise too that talk of oil 'running out' is simply inaccurate: we're talking about a plateauing of production and a subsequent gradual decline, which isn't even certain when we take into account new discoveries like the Brazilian oil field discovered last month, apparently the biggest find in thirty years.

The other point to bear in mind is that current high oil prices are not related to supply/demand or a peaking of production, but due to bullish market traders and in particular the weak dollar, which for the last six months has encouraged investment in commodities instead (and of course if a dollar is worth more now than it was a couple of years ago, then oil, measured in dollars, is bound to be more expensive in dollars even if its value is essentially unchanged). Oil is currently over $120 a barrel; one industry analyst this week said that $200 a barrel is a possibility within 6 months to 2 years; another said that it could easily drop to $40 a barrel because the current rises are so manifestly unrelated to real world supply/demand issues and are just financial hot air waiting to burst.

Nonetheless I welcome the current high price of oil, as it has made people rethink their energy consumption - one friend is going to get the bus into work instead of driving; I will be buying a bicycle next month for my 3.5 mile commute. And if it encourages investment in alternative transport technologies then hurray - the tipping point where consciousness of oil consumption becomes as ubiquitous as climate change awareness cannot be far off. Electric and hydrogen cars, being launched over the next year or two by many major manufacturers, could become regular sights within a decade.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. I feel better for getting that off my chest. Now, anyone want some of our spare courgettes??

Nick said...

John - Phew, thanks for that! Ironically, the idea we'll all run out of food is contradicted today by the news that we waste about a third of the UK's food supplies, which suggests that right now there's more than enough food available.

Hadn't heard about the Brazilian oil field - that's good news. Also hadn't heard the argument that the oil price is totally unrelated to the real demand and supply situation. But certainly a continuing rise in oil prices would make people think seriously about using less oil.

As I said above, there's not much sign yet of the oil squeeze radically affecting our daily lives, but sooner or later it will and we'll all have to make some painful adjustments to our greedy, high-consumption lifestyles.