Pensioners – pah! They just don’t know when they’re well off, mate. Back in my day, old people were seen and not heard. Now they all float away on their final-salary cruises, their free bus passes, living it up on their gold-plated pensions. And they had the nerve to vote us out of Europe. It’s about time the idle old had a taste of living in the real world …
But the real world for many pensioners, around 1.6 million of them in the UK, is still one of poverty, despite the marginal reduction in the last few years. Pensioners on fixed incomes have been devastated by zero interest rates and inflation. And with the black hole of £390 billion emerging in final salary pension schemes (those that haven’t been wound up) there’s precious little gold plating left. There will be even less if reports that the Government intends to allow firms to renege on pension promises to staff are accurate.
Of course, some pensioners, mainly those who have big houses and are already in receipt of index-linked, final salary pensions are very comfortable. The former work and pensions minister, Ros Altmann, is probably right to question the validity of the triple lock, under which state pensions rise each year by the inflation rate, average earnings or 2.5 per cent – whichever is highest.
Since 2008, oldies have certainly done better as a group than the burgeoning class of people who are on benefits but in work. However, pensioners pay tax on their earnings just like everyone else. Also, following the scrapping of the link to average earnings in 1981, the state pension had lost more than one third of its value, so there was a clear case for catch up.
But the assault on the state pension uprating seems to be part of a general grievance against older people who, unlike ethnic and gender minorities, can still be targeted without falling foul of political rectitude. Some, like Shiv Malik, co author of Jilted Generation, even believe that voting rights should be curbed for the over 60s.
Of course, there is a generational divide. People who entered the employment market in the 1970s and 80s were supported by free higher education, cheap house prices, secure jobs and final salary pensions. Millennials, or generation rent as they are called, are burdened instead with crippling student debt, ferocious house prices and dead-end jobs.
True, unemployment is rather lower than in the 1980s. But in what is called the gig economy, where many young people work, this is at the cost of zero-hours contracts, minimum income pay and zero job security. Those Deliveroo bikers may look free and easy but, in many other internet-age occupations, the reality is exploitation of a kind we haven’t seen since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
Some say the young only have themselves to blame. They don’t join unions, many don’t vote in general elections – though many of them did in the EU referendum and older Brexiters still prevailed. According to opinion polls, many young workers take a decidedly Thatcherite view of society as being composed of acquisitive individuals and not much else. But they face challenges that are unique to this very individualist generation.
The industrial workers of the past had real bargaining power – the threat of shutting down factories – that today’s marginal employees lack. Increasingly, young workers are in forms of involuntary self-employment and almost impossible to organise by trades unions. The public sector, where unions still exert influence, is being whittled away and outsourced with the aid of managers brought in from the private world.
But it would be a tragedy if young people were to believe that it is older people who are to blame for their misfortunes. They are not. Young people are victims of a political system in which wealthy property owners, of all ages, have been allowed effectively to dictate terms. As recently as the 1970s, top rates of taxation in countries such as the United States and Britain were more than over 80 per cent and wealth was spread much more widely across society than today. It was called consumer capitalism, and it worked.
But capitalism has been rebooted in an Edwardian mode defined by a deepening wealth divide, insecurity and political defeatism. Old people aren’t to blame for that. It is rather like blaming Jews, as some did, for the misfortunes of the working class because of their reputation as bankers; what Marxists used to call “the socialism of fools”. Young people need to know who their real enemies are.