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Young people don’t realise they are being fleeced

So are dead Scots are subsidising the increased incomes of English pensioners? Well, that’s what the SNP think. I paraphrase, of course, but it’s more or less what Nicola Sturgeon was getting at when she said that the retirement age in Scotland should not be raised because Scots die younger than the English.

Now, of course, it is true that in 20 Scottish postcodes, a majority don’t reach the existing retirement age of 65, let alone the new one of 68. The average life expectancy in some Glasgow constituencies is less than sixty years. Those poor sods have contributed to pensions they never receive.

However, it is a fallacy to suggest that in some way that the dying Scots are being conned by the long-lived English. In any universal system there will be losers. Afro-Carib beans tend to die younger than white people, but you wouldn’t argue for a lower pension age for them. Many London postcodes have statistics as bad as ours.

Moreover, those English people who are working till they are 68 will be contributing a lot more in taxes and national insurance than Scots who pop their clogs at 58. Granted, if Scotland were independent, then it could set its own retirement age. But we would have to do without the UK NHS which pays disproportionately to Scots because we are so unhealthy.

No, the people I really feel sorry for are not the Glaswegian living dead with their suicidal lifestyles, but the hard-working Scots (and English) under 27 years of age who are getting a seriously raw deal from the government’s new pensions policy.

Today’s twenty-somethings are already burdened with five figure debts from university and they can’t afford a home because they are occupied by wealthy fifty-somethings. But it is the young who will have to pay for the increased pensions enjoyed by their parents from 2012, when the link between pension increases and average earnings is restored. The under 27s will have to work until they are 68.

And they will be denied the final-salary schemes pension schemes of their parent’s generation, because they are all being wound up. And they will have to pay increased taxes to support the huge increase in the numbers of old people as the baby boom generation retires. By 2050, the proportion of the population over 65 will double. Gordon Brown says that the package is revenue neutral – but very few people believe that the ageing population will be tax free.

There is a serious issue political issue here which we have hardly begun to address. We are dumping a very great responsibility onto people who are just entering the jobs market. There is a real danger of the intergenerational social contract being broken. Many young people may come to feel they are being screwed by the grey hairs, who had all the benefits of the welfare state and now want to maintain their privileges in their dotage.

The baby boom generation, borne in the decade after the Second World War, really did have it all. Free higher education, comfortable and secure careers, free health care and houses like slot machine which only pay out jack-pots. They inherited the sexual liberation and the greater intellectual and spiritual freedom of the 1960s – he decade which discovered youth. But not only did they invent youth culture, they kept hold of it throughout adulthood.

The over fifties are the generation that never grew up, never had to fight a war, never had to suffer material hardship. It’s no accident that this is the first generation to make pensions a key political issue. Pensioner poverty was far worse in the last century, but because the baby boomers were too young to think about it, nothing was done. Now they are in their fifties, like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, pensions are suddenly top of the political pops.

Of course, the pension reforms are just and overdue. They will give older people a share in rising national wealth, curb the worst excesses of means-testing and give people an incentive to save. However, with an ageing population, someone is going to have to pay. But today’s twenty year olds don’t quite seem to quite realise that it’s them.

Unfortunately, younger people have largely opted out of the public realm. They don’t seem to discuss politics much – except for single issues. Older people read newspapers, know what’s going on, aren’t afraid to lobby MPs. Politicians are responding to the grey vote because there are so many of them and because they are twice as likely to vote in elections as the under 24s.

Young people have turned away from the ballot box because they think, rightly, that politicians are all the same. But that doesn’t mean politicians always act the same. They respond to political pressure, to public opinion, and right now older people are having a very real impact – especially in Scotland.

Just look at what older people have gained from devolution. They can travel by bus for nothing across the whole country; get free central heating; get free personal medical care and a suite of other carers provided by social services. Pretty soon council tax may be abolished, which disproportionately affects older people, in favour of local income tax, which hits younger people in work.

The very least that the government could do is address the housing problem faced by young people. The average age of a first time buyer in Scotland is 37 and many of them will still be paying mortgages when they retire. There’s no secret about what needs to be done: the government needs to incentivise house building. But Gordon Brown doesn’t want a housing boom because it would reduce the inflated value of the houses occupied by, yes, the over fifties.

And another thing. History may judge that it was today’s over fifties who destroyed the climate by their profligate energy policies and their obsession with private transport and big houses that cost the earth to heat. And who will pay the price for global warming? Yes, those same 27 year olds who are entering the world of work. They will somehow have to clean up the biggest mess in history and suffer the privations and anxiety of living in a corrupted ecosystem. Today’s older people said they wanted to die before they got old. They may be about to take the planet with them.

One wonders how young people will react once they finally realise they are being given the fluffy end of the lollypop. We know how the over fifties would have responded to inter-generational inequality – violently. Many of today’s older people were student radicals in their youth, and even those who weren’t have political activism written into their DNA. They would’ve been on the streets demonstrating against the scourge of gerontocracy. Occupying old peoples’ homes, organising mortgage strikes, defacing SAGA adverts.

But somehow I don’t see it from today’s docile wage-slaves. Old people deserve everything they get because being old is no joke. However, they are getting the last laugh at the expense of the young.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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